A combination of in vitro and in vivo experiments with comparative phage genomics was used for the rational design of a phage cocktail against E. coli diarrhea. Orally applied T4 coliphages representing three different subgroups (T4-, RB49- and JS98-like phages) had no negative impact on the murine gut microbiota. T4 phages were found with high titers in the cecum and colon and lower titers in the small intestine, but were not detected in the blood, liver or spleen. No adverse effects were observed after one-month exposure to phage nor were serum anti-T4 antibodies detected. T4 phages belonging to the same subgroup showed closely related genomes that differed by 12 (phage JS10 vs. JS98 reference) to 17 (phage JSE vs. RB49 reference) insertion/deletions mostly representing single small ORFs. Bioinformatic analysis did not reveal undesired genes in the T4 genomes. Sequence variability was seen over the tail fibre genes, but the variability did not correlate with phage host range. The investigated T4 phages were not only species- but also strain-specific, necessitating the use of phage cocktails consisting of 10 and 16 T4 phage isolates to cover half to two thirds of E. coli strains representing the five main pathotypes isolated from diarrhea patients.
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