Bacteriophage diagrams: How do they look like? (Classification of bacteriophages basing on morphology)

How do bacteriophages look like?

A well-shaped particle with a distinctly separated head, tail (neck, sheath, base plate, and pins), and tail fibers (very perfect body) has been used to portray bacteriophages in academic and non-academic manners over the world. That same picture that comes into your mind once someone mentions bacteriophage is not the only shape. Commonly used morphology is derived from T-4 bacteriophages. Although there are other bacteriophages with the same or nearly identical shapes (having slightly deviation like lacking some parts or having different body parts proportions). Other forms include "pipe/thread" like structure (e.g., Inoviridae), round (e.g., Cytoviridae), and icosahedral (e.g., Leviviridae); without other parts, the diversity of morphologies can be used to classify bacteriophages.

T4 bacteriophage. Photo by Omar CotsFernandez for The phage

There are different suggestions on why the T-phage shape is mostly the preferred shape to graphically represent bacteriophages. Many scientists have other ideas on why it came to be like that, some suggesting that it was the first bacteriophage to be discovered and visualized, some point due to their well distinct body parts, it's easier to study it, others suggest that a considerable percentage of phages look like that while other indicate its shape resemble "predator (killing machine)" compared to different morphologies. Most of the suggestions are based on their structure, which simplifies studying their mechanisms and availability (comprises a large percentage of the phage population).

As sophisticated improvements in science and technology positively impact research, scientists are revealing a lot of important information that we would have missed during past decades. The field of bacteriophage is still naïve, although the age of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) returned the interest, and many scientists worldwide are coming together to look for antibiotic alternatives. During this period, much information has been released/revealed, and now humankind is becoming more and more familiar with their close "ally" in the microscopic universe (bacteriophages). The less prioritized phage morphologies are at least now in the spotlight too.

Classification of Bacteriophage basing on their morphologies (shapes)

The responsible body for Virus (including phages) classification is The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). This body has offered the version of classification based on morphology. Compared to the one provided by Bradley (will be discussed later), this version of classification is more straightforward and contains only three groups; polyhedral or cubic, filamentous or pleomorphic phages.

Classification of bacteriophages based on morphologies as per The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV)

Tailed phages (equivalents to 96% of the phages discovered)

Classified as order Caudovirales, divided into three families: MyoviridaeSiphoviridae, and Podoviridae.

P1 phage particle
P1 bacteriophage. Photo by Omar CotsFernandez for The phage

Bacteriophage familyExample
Myoviridae phages- with icosahedral head, contractile tails, double-stranded DNA (dsDNA)
  • Phage T4
  • Phage P1
Siphoviridae phages -with icosahedral head, long and non-contractile tails, double-stranded DNA (dsDNA)
  • Phage λ
  • Lactococcus phage C2
Podoviridae phages- have the icosahedral head, short tails, double-stranded DNA (dsDNA)
  • Phage T7
  • Phage P22

Polyhedral or cubic phages

-classified into MicroviridaeCorticoviridaeTectiviridaeLeviviridae, and Cystoviridae.

Bacteriophages familyExample
Microviridae phages- icosahedral head, virion size 27 nm, with 12 capsomers, single-stranded DNA (ssDNA)
  • Phage φX174
Corticoviridae phages- no envelope, 63 nm in size, complex capsid, lipids, dsDNA
  • Phage PM2
Tectiviridae phages- no envelope, 60 nm, flexible lipid vesicle, pseudo-tail, dsDNA
  •  Phage PRD1
Leviviridae phages- no envelope, 23 nm, poliovirus-like, ssRNA
  • Phage MS2
Cystoviridae phages-with enveloped, icosahedral head, 70-80 nm, lipids, dsRNA
  • Pseudomonas ɸ6

Filamentous phages

It-Made up of three families known as InoviridaeLipothrixviridae, and Rudiviridae.

Bacteriophage familyExample
Inoviridae phages- no envelope, long flexible filament or short straight rods, ssDNA
  • Phage M13
Lipothrixviridae phages- enveloped, rod-shaped capsid, lipids, dsDNA
  • Phage TTV1
Rudiviridae phages- Straight uncoated rods, TMV-like, dsDNA
  • Phage SIRV-1

Pleomorphic phages

Phages containing dsDNA are classified into several families: PlasmaviridaeFuselloviridaeGuttaviridaeBicaudaviridaeAmpullaviridae, and Globuloviridae.

Bacteriophages familyExample
Plasmaviridae phages- enveloped, 80nm, with no capsid, lipids
  • Phage MVL2
Fuselloviridae phages- enveloped, tapered capsid with short spikes end, lipids.
  • Phage SSV1
Ampullaviridae phages- enveloped, bottle-shaped virion, 230 nm in length
  • Phage ABV
Guttaviridae phages- droplet-shaped
  • Phage SNDV
Bicaudaviridae phages- Lemon-shaped virions, 120X 80 nm, long tails
  • Phage ATV

Many scientists came with different ways of classifying phages. However, the most popular style was the one published by Bradley in 1967which resulted in six bacteriophage-based on six morphological groups, with the seventh group added later by other scientists.

Classification of bacteriophages based on morphologies as described by Bradley (1967)

Type A: Bacteriophage with hexagonal head and tail with contractile sheath

These viruses have a "tadpole shape," meaning they have a hexagonal head, a rigid tail with contractile sheath and tail fibers dsRNA, T-even (T2, T4, T6) phages. Most of the phages are T-shaped.

Siphoviridae bacteriophage
Siphoviridae phage with a long 
non-contractile tail. Drawn by
Omar Cots Fernandez for
The Phage

Type B: Bacteriophage with a hexagonal head and long, flexible tail

Unlike Type-A, these phages contain a hexagonal head, but they lack contractile sheath. Its tail is flexible and may or may not have tail fiber, such as dsDNA phages, e.g., T1 and T5 phages.

Type C: Bacteriophage with a hexagonal head and short, non-contractile tail

Type C is characterized by a hexagonal head and a tail shorter than the head. The tail lacks contractile sheath and may or may not have tail fiber, such as dsDNA phages, e.g., T3 and T7.

Type D: Bacteriophage with only hexagonal head in symmetry with large capsomere on it

Type D contains a head made up of capsomers but lacks a tail, for example, ssDNA phages (e.g., φX174). The capsomeres are subunits of the capsid, an outer covering of protein that protects the genetic material.

Type E: Bacteriophage with a simple regular hexagonal head

This type consists of a head made up of small capsomers but contains no tail, for example, ssRNA phages (e.g., F2, MS2).

Type F: Bacteriophage with no head but with long flexible filament virion

These phages are named for their filamentous shape, a worm-like chain, about 6 nm in diameter and about 1000-2000 nm long.

Type G: No detectable capsid (This group was added later after Bradley original study publication)

This group has a lipid-containing envelope and has no detectable capsid, for example, a dsRNA phage, MV-L2.

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