ASM Microbe
ASM Microbe
Perspective from Graham F. Hatfull, PhD
June 23, 2019
2 min read

Students find phages in their kitchen sponges

Perspective from Graham F. Hatfull, PhD
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SAN FRANCISCO — Bacteriophages may be living in household kitchen sponges, according to data presented at ASM Microbe.

Bacteriophages — or phages — are viruses that target and kill bacteria. They live anywhere there are bacteria, including soil and water, and are being explored as an alternative treatment for drug-resistant infections.

“Anything and everything could be in your kitchen sponge,” Bryan Gibb, PhD, an assistant professor of biological and chemical sciences at the New York Institute of Technology, told Infectious Disease News.

“I thought, ‘Bacteriophages live everywhere, they could be in sponges too.’ I had that in my mind heading into a spring research class,” Gibb said. “Typically people go phage hunting but I didn’t want the students to have to dig through the snow at the start of the spring semester so I thought it was a good time to uncork the sponge idea to see what we could find.”

The project began with seven students bringing in dirty kitchen sponges. The research team isolated bacteria after wetting the sponges and squeezing out the water and then used the bacteria as “bait” to draw out phages.

According to Brianna Weiss, an undergraduate student at the New York Institute of Technology, two students were successful in finding phages.

“What was the most interesting, though, was that we decided to swap the bacteria around to see if [the phages could cross-infect the other student’s bacteria], and they did, which was crazy considering they came from two completely different sponges from two totally different households,” Weiss told Infectious Disease News.

According to the researchers, sequencing identified the two bacteria as members of the Enterobacteriaceae family, but biochemical test results showed that the isolates were different.

“We don’t know what it means, other than maybe fecal bacteria is common in kitchen sponges,” Gibb said.

Engineered phages from a large phage library were recently used to treat an English teenager’s extensively drug-resistant mycobacterial infection following a double lung transplant for cystic fibrosis. According to Weiss and Gibb, there are plans to send the sponge phages — named LKsleep and Shaolin — to a library once further characterizing is completed.

“There are two ways the take home message of the study can go. On one hand, if there are bacteria or pathogens on kitchen sponges, they could be dangerous. There aren’t any data on people getting sick from kitchen sponges, but it has to have happened. We’ll be exploring that later,” Gibb said. “On the other hand — who knows if these two phages will be clinically relevant for phage therapy. Bacteriophage therapy is a really cool idea.”– by Caitlyn Stulpin


Weiss B, et al. There are bacteriophages in your kitchen sponge. Presented at: ASM Microbe; June 20-24, 2019; San Francisco.

Disclosures: Gibb and Weiss report no relevant financial disclosures.