A type of gut bacteria compound has been found to activate dormant viruses in other microbes, a mechanism which could help scientists further their understanding of how cancer develops.

New research has discovered that when a compund called colibactin enters neighbouring bacteria carrying dormant viruses, it damages its DNA, which in turn activates the viruses.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator Dr Emily Balskus led the research, saying colibactin “doesn’t directly kill the target organisms, which is what we normally think of bacterial toxins doing within microbial communities.

“The key to preventing cancer may be understanding the effects colibactin has on the microbe community and how its production is controlled.”

It was previously known that colibactin can affect human cells, and that damage to the DNA can lead to colorectal cancer. Dr Balskus, who has been researching the compound for 10 years, wanted to understand more about this connection.

Her lab set out to explore whether a third party – bacteria-infecting viruses – could play a role when it comes to colibactin entering bacterial cells and damaging their DNA.

The team’s findings indicate that cancer could be collateral damage as a result of other behaviours by colibactin-producing bacteria, with Dr Balskus saying: “We always suspected that bacteria made this toxin to target other bacteria in some way. It didn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective that they acquired it to target human cells.”

The study has been published in the journal Nature.

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