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University of Missouri

Bacteria vs. Viruses

MU scientists have found a new method to combat deadly “super bugs.”


The developed world has largely conquered water‐born illnesses — but new “super bugs” are emerging that are resistant to common antimicrobial treatments and are posing problems at drinking water and sewer treatment plants across the world.

MU researchers have found a new way to combat these pathogens, and their discovery could change how we sanitize everything from drinking water to medical equipment.

There are quite a few cases around the country with this bacteria contamination problem, either in the drinking water system, food industry or agriculture business,” says MU Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Zhiqiang Hu.

Hu and his former doctoral student, YanYan Zhang, spent the past two years investigating how to kill these super bugs that traditional sanitation methods leave behind.

The result is a concentrated cocktail of specifically chosen viruses that attack pathogens of interest while leaving intact beneficial bacteria. Used in combination with chlorine treatment, Hu has shown the method to be highly effective in lab experiments.

One of the bacteria we mention [in our published research] article is … an opportunistic pathogen that can potentially cause a lot of disease issues in humans,” Hu says. “We can demonstrate that our method is effective at killing those bacteria with this combined approach.”

The next step, he says, is to find a partner to do a pilot study at an actual water sanitation plant. With real‐world data, Hu could then try to commercialize the research.

The exciting thing, Hu says, is that the specialty viruses could potentially combat super bugs in other areas as well.

[They] can be used in other industries — the food industry, the medical industry,” Hu says. “We’re talking about catheters where you could potentially have those bugs. We can use this method to specifically kill those pathogens attached to those medical devices.”

Hu and Zhang’s research was published in the August 2012 online edition of Biotechnology and Bioengineering.