Bacteria or Virus?

Every time you catch a cold or developer a fever, either a Bacteria or a virus is to blame, yet despite extensive knowledge on both organisms doctors are often unable to identify which one is the cause of your sickness. Medical professionals must study the symptoms of the infection to generate an educated guess as to what the culprit could be. However, a recent study of gene expression (epigenetics) displayed a distinct difference between a gene’s expression when infected with a virus versus when infected with a bacteria.

A virus is an infective agent that typically consists of a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat, is too small to be seen by light microscopy, and is able to multiply only within the living cells of a host. A bacteria is a single celled microbe that is The most important difference between a bacterial and a viral infection is the form of treatment. Antibiotics work to kill bacteria effectively, however are ineffective against viruses. Antivirals are prescribed for viral infections, but do not kill the organism. Rather they suppress the symptoms of the infection. It is often left up to the human Immune system to fight off a viral infection. Because of this ability some viruses can be extremely dangerous and even incurable, such as HIV. Therefore the distinction between the two is essential to the treatment method of an infection.

Purvesh Khatri, a computational immunologist (a scientist that utilizes genomics and bioinformatics to approach to immunology), of Stanford University researched this topic along with many other academic scientist by sifting through a wide variety of publicly available databases that includes information about human genes responses to an infection of influenza, human rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus to discover correlations between viral infections. What they found was a list of 400 genes which each grew more or less active due to the virus. Many of these genes’ transformations are the cause of common symptoms, like inflammation. Influenza disturbs an even fewer number of genes (11) allowing scientist to specify if a viral infection is influenza or not. Even more astounding, researchers were able to identify the change in genes hours before symptoms actually appeared.

Despite the promise of such a discovery there are many would warn against overconfidence in this procedure like immunologist John Tsang of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md. He cautions that, “before this method could be useful in clinics, it will need to be tested in a large prospective trial, one designed to capture changes in gene behavior in people over time.” Others in the science community also have reservations about the discovery, but for now the enlightenment of this new theory opens innumerable possibilities.

This new development will allow scientist to determine the origin of the infection in order to address effective treatment methods in a more efficient manner than a complex game of guess and check. By confirming or eliminating the infection as a virus, one can also determine whether an infection is bacterial or not. This research could also be beneficial to perfecting the flu vaccine but studying the reactions of those 11 genes. Khatri and his colleagues are currently designing a test that could be administered effectively and quickly at a doctors office to identify the infections cause. This test would hopefully cut down on the unnecessary use of antibiotics. The development is well supported through various experiments and continues the same behavior across various databases around the world.

About Mr. Mohn

Biology Teacher

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