As solicited over twitter by TheFrogBlog, I designed a T7 Bacteriophage model for 3D printing via Shapeways. And, here it is:
It's a little fragile at the tips of the legs, so I might increase the size a little to make it more robust. Also, the neck is a little weak where the head joins the body, so I may have to lower the head a little to strengthen that connection.
Still, turned out really nicely; I'm delighted to have another showy molecular biology toy for my desk!
Bacteriophages like T7 are the viruses of bacteria. They are made almost entirely of protein, and they infect bacteria by attaching to the outside membrane of the cell and injecting the DNA payload in their “head” into the cell. They were used for years to help understand how bacterial genomes worked, by “tricking” the virus into carrying other bits of DNA instead and injecting that DNA into different cells to see what happened. The process was/is called “transduction”, and is recognised as one of many ways that bacteria can collect DNA from unrelated species, perhaps assisting in the spread of antibiotic resistance, or adaptation to new habitats. These days, we have better tools for studying bacteria..but they don't look as awesome.
Bacteriophages have also been used (and continue to attract attention and investigation) as antibiotic agents; because bacteriophages can undergo evolution to adapt to their hosts, they can in theory provide a resistance-free way of treating bacterial infections. However, they tend to have a really narrow host-range, which limits their usefulness. Still, with synthetic biology, we may be able to engineer more useful “smart viruses” that can infect and kill only the dangerous strains of otherwise harmless bugs, possibly offering us a new way to treat sick tummies that doesn't wipe out all those important gut bacteria in the process.