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Bacteriocins, together with antibiotics and bacteriophages, make up a spectrum of antimicrobial compounds. Antibiotics are by far the most well-known and widely distributed agents used to control and limit microbial growth. Although bacteriocins and bacteriophages were described concurrently with antibiotics, the latter was the most quickly and widely adopted in the West due to 1) ease of production, and 2) their generally wide activity spectrum. However, the widespread use of antibiotics has led to the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which threatens human health. Additionally, microbiome studies are revealing the therapeutic and commensal nature of many of the microbes living in and on humans, demonstrating that beneficial microbes are removed through broad-spectrum antibiotic use. The use of antibiotics in industrial applications can also be prohibitively expensive.
Bacteriophages, or phages, are viruses that infect bacteria. Like bacteriocins, they were not widely adopted throughout the world during the 20th century. Rather, phage use has been selective, with most health-related research being done in Russia and the country of Georgia, while phage use in the food industry has begun to be implemented in the dairy industry in the US and the Netherlands.
Indeed, phages offer advantages to antibiotics in terms of their specificity, as they can target individual species. However, there are drawbacks to phage use, particularly in terms of unwanted phage integration into the bacterial genome, a state called lysogeny, which can make controlling phage reproduction difficult. Additionally, phages themselves are self-replicating entities, which can add another layer of uncertainty to their use.
Bacteriocins are ribosomally-synthesized peptides secreted by bacteria that are capable of targeting either a wide or narrow spectrum of bacteria. Their small size limits the metabolic strain on the host, and they are found in hundreds of known species. Their mechanism of action can be specific or broad, making the development of resistance a less likely occurrence. Additionally, bacteriocins are needed in much smaller quantities to kill bacteria than antibiotics. These qualities make bacteriocins an attractive alternative to antibiotics in the context of AMR (Antimicrobial resistance).