Kitchen Sponges Carry Bacteria and the Microbes to Fight Them

Bacteriophages found in kitchen sponges may hold promise for the treatment of antimicrobial-resistant bacterial infections.

Students at New York Institute of Technology isolated 2 bacteriophages from kitchen sponges in a study that may shed light on potential treatments for antimicrobial-resistant bacterial infections.

Their work was highlighted in a poster presentation at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM Microbe 2019).

“We are not surprised to find bacteriophages in kitchen sponges, but this work really highlights how prominent they are within our environment and, as we seek out novel therapies including bacteriophages, the value of searching in non-traditional places,” Bryan Gibb, PhD, assistant professor in New York Institute of Technology’s Department of the Biological and Chemical Sciences told Contagion®. “Discoveries can be found in any corner, or in this case, hiding in a lowly, dirty kitchen sponge.”

Seven students isolated bacteria from kitchen sponges and used those bacteria to try to identify bacteriophages that would infect the bacteria. Two of the students isolated bacteriophages. The sponges came from 2 different homes. Both carried Enterobacteriaceae bacteria that were similar, but had chemical variations. The 2 different bacteriophages were swapped and found to kill both bacteria.

“Phages are the most abundant biological entities on the planet, so I thought it would be easy to find them,” Gibb told Contagion®. “However, as it was pointed out to me, isolating a bacteriophage requires finding a set of conditions to culture the bacterial host and also a subset of conditions that are favorable for propagation of the phage. We used really an ordinary set of culture media, so this approach certainly contributed to the challenges some students faced in finding bacteriophages. I’m certain there are far more bacteriophages in these sponges, and there are experiments we could perform to sample for that, but that was not the goal of this project.”

Further work is being done to sequence the genomes of the bacteriophages and host bacteria to gain better understanding of the organisms and their relationships with an eye toward determining therapeutic possibilities.

“We need to better understand the nature of the microbes that inhabit kitchen sponges to evaluate the potential risk to people,” Gibb said. “In addition, we need to explore ways to mitigate those risks.”

The concept of treating antimicrobial-resistant bacterial infections with bacteriophages has been gaining attention. A teenage patient who underwent a lung transplant and became infected with drug-resistant Mycobacterium abscessus was successfully treated with experimental engineered bacteriophages.

The poster presentation was among numerous projects exploring bacteriophages that were highlighted at ASM Microbe.

“[A]ntibiotic resistance among bacteria is a crisis right now, destined to get much worse in the coming years,” Gibb told Contagion®. “We need to accelerate efforts to find good novel antimicrobials and fully explore novel alternative therapeutics. Phages hold great therapeutic potential, as has been demonstrated by several recent amazing stories. There is still so much we don’t know about bacteriophages, and as we seek to learn more about how they work, we also continue searching for (or engineering) bacteriophages with therapeutic potential—even from unconventional environments.”

The poster, “The solution to antibiotic resistance could be in your kitchen sponge,” was presented on June 23, 2019, at ASM Microbe 2019 in San Francisco, California.