The Significance of Mutualistic Phages for Bacterial Ecology and Evolution

Trends Microbiol. 2016 Jun;24(6):440-449. doi: 10.1016/j.tim.2015.12.009. Epub 2016 Jan 27.


Bacteria and phages have traditionally been viewed as 'antagonists'. However, temperate phages can transfer genes, which can broaden their bacterial hosts' metabolic repertoire, confer or enhance virulence, or eliminate competing organisms, and so enhance bacterial fitness. Recent evidence shows that phages can also promote biofilm formation leading to population-level benefits for their bacterial hosts. Here, we provide a perspective on the ecological and evolutionary consequences for the bacteria interacting with phages, when phage and host interests are aligned. Furthermore, we examine the question whether bacterial hosts can lower immune barriers to phage infection, thereby facilitating infection by beneficial phages. Taking recent evidence together, we suggest that in many cases temperate phages are to be considered as being mutualistic as well as parasitic, at the same time.

Keywords: CRISPR-Cas; arms race; biofilm; co-evolution; mutualism; phage.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / immunology
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Bacteria / virology*
  • Bacteriophages / genetics
  • Bacteriophages / pathogenicity
  • Bacteriophages / physiology*
  • Biofilms / growth & development
  • Biological Coevolution
  • CRISPR-Cas Systems
  • Ecology*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genome, Viral
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions / genetics
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions / physiology*
  • Phenotype
  • Symbiosis*
  • Virulence