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Life aquatic: the amazing self-purifying properties of the Ganges River.

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The Ganges is India’s holiest and most revered river. Often referred to as “Mother Ganges”, this river originates from the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas, and provides a lifeline for the millions of people living along its banks, before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. Today, the river is among the world’s most polluted, filled with untreated sewage, industrial waste and pesticides. Amazingly, in spite of the pressures posed by modern India, the Ganges River supports a surprising amount of biodiversity thanks to its remarkable self–purifying and regeneration properties. Studies from as far back as 1896 have shown the unique antimicrobial properties of the Ganges against Vibrio cholera–the causative agent of cholera–which died within 3 hours in Ganges water, but persisted for 48 hours in distilled water. French scientist Félix d’Herelle later attributed this mystic characteristic to the action of bacteriophages–bacteria killing viruses. Besides just being fascinating science, bacteriophages may hold important implications in modern medicine. We live in an era where antibiotic resistance could become a global crisis, owing to the liberal and widespread use of antibiotics. Studies have shown that bacteriophages can be modified to target specific bacteria and provide long-lasting treatment for a vast array of infections. Scientists are now hopeful that the Ganges might provide clues for the design and synthesis of a new class of antimicrobial drugs.

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