• Open Access

Bacteriophages and genetic mobilization in sewage and faecally polluted environments


For correspondence: E-mail: mmuniesa@ub.edu; Tel. (+34) 93 403 9386; Fax (+34) 93 403 9047.


Bacteriophages are one of the most abundant entities on the planet and are present in high concentrations within humans and animals, mostly in the gut. Phages that infect intestinal bacteria are released by defecation and remain free in extra-intestinal environments, where they usually persist for longer than their bacterial hosts. Recent studies indicate that a large amount of the genetic information in bacterial genomes and in natural environments is of phage origin. In addition, metagenomic analysis reveals that a substantial number of bacterial genes are present in viral DNA in different environments. These facts support the belief that phages can play a significant role in horizontal gene transfer between bacteria. Bacteriophages are known to transfer genes by generalized and specialized transduction and indeed there are some examples of phages found in the environment carrying and transducing genes of bacterial origin. A successful transduction in the environment requires certain conditions, e.g. phage and bacterial numbers need to exceed certain threshold concentrations, the bacteria need to exist in an infection-competent physiological state, and lastly, the physical conditions in the environment (pH, temperature, etc. of the supporting matrix) have to be suitable for phage infection. All three factors are reviewed here, and the available information suggests: (i) that the number of intestinal bacteria and phages in faecally contaminated environments guarantees bacteria–phage encounters, (ii) that transduction to intestinal bacteria in the environment is probable, and (iii) that transduction is more frequent than previously thought. Therefore, we suggest that phage-mediated horizontal transfer between intestinal bacteria, or between intestinal and autochthonous bacteria in extra-intestinal environments, might take place and that its relevance for the emergence of new bacterial strains and potential pathogens should not be ignored.