Students “Hunt” – and Discover – Bacteria-killing Viruses

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Students in Dr. Nicholas Edgington’s Genomics I and II classes delve into the burgeoning field of phage research at Southern Connecticut State University. Phage is short for bacteriophage, a virus that attacks bacteria, and Dr. Edgington’s research is part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute‘s SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance’s Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) Program.

“The goal of the course, part of a national pedagogical program, is to get students doing research early, so they can see what it’s like and learn the scientific process,” explains Dr. Edgington, Associate Professor of Biology. He continued, “SCSU was accepted into the program in 2011. Pedagogical research on this program has demonstrated that it increases several beneficial effects.” These effects include self-efficacy, academic persistence and an increased interest in research.

Bacteriophage research has dramatic real world implications. With the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens, “phage therapy” has become increasingly popular. “Advances in DNA sequencing have made it relatively inexpensive to sequence everything on the planet,” says Dr. Edgington. “Although bacterial viruses have been estimated to be the most abundant biological entity on the planet, they remain understudied. These discoveries could have an important impact on human health.”

 

Bacteriophage Research

Dr. Nicholas Edgington (left) and students Kamil Wielechowski (center) and Amanda Sciola (right) stand with presentations at the HHMI SEA-PHAGES Research Conference at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn VA, in 2015.

 

“SEA teaches students how to approach scientific problems creatively and critically and prepares them for advanced research opportunities later in their academic careers,” says Dr. Edgington. At the end of the year, student and faculty representatives from participating schools attend the SEA Symposium, a scientific meeting at which participants share and discuss their discoveries.

Students hunt phages by taking soil samples. These samples are spoonfuls of dirt from around Connecticut, often around campus, but sometimes students’ backyards. “It is generally harmless for humans, unless they have an immune problem. But for any other person it’s no worse than digging in the dirt,” says Dr. Edgington.

While the soil samples are, to quote the Genomics syllabus, “generally considered safe,” the host (Mycobacterium smegmatis) can have a serious impact. As Dr. Edgington explains, “Some of these phages are predicted to kill a serious human mycobacterial pathogens that causes tuberculosis and leprosy.”

Once the sample is collected, it is filtered for phages. “The dirt is filtered such that only the phages can pass through the filter, but otherwise no living cells,” says Dr. Edgington. Students then perform assays to see if they have collected any of the bacteriophages from the soil.

Once students discover a new phage, it is up to them to name it. According to Dr. Edgington, they can get pretty creative. “There have been a number of literary references. ‘Wintermute’ is a character from William S. Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. ‘Keziah’ is named after one of the main antagonists in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in The Witch House. Others refer to Harry Potter (Snape, Xeno), as well as movies and television (Megatron, Scully).” So far the program has led to the discovery of over six thousand previously-unknown viruses by undergraduate students.

Dr. Edgington sees a bright future for the study of Genomics, both at SCSU and throughout the scientific community. “We’ll probably do this program for the next several years, if not longer,” predicts Dr. Edgington. He added, “It does seem to have a lot of benefits for students. It changes their outlooks on networking and project management skills.”

Not to mention the future careers of budding scientists. Dr. Edgington has already seen his students utilize their experience to land both academic prizes and positions in prestigious labs. “This kind of research is the same kind that gets done at government centers or biotech companies,” says Dr. Edgington and added, “These are valuable skills.”

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