Be a Phage Hunter You can't Google this stuff!

Be a Phage Hunter
A first-year student checks out her plaque for possible phages in the Phage Hunter course.

There’s a little wonder of the natural world that doesn’t get a lot of press, even though it could be playing a huge role in your immune system’s health.

It’s a virus called a bacteriophage and, as a first-year science student at Calvin, you could get to know one of these wonders very well.

So well that once you’ve gathered, cultured and isolated a “phage” of your own, you’ll also have a chance to analyze its DNA, gene by gene.

In the process, you’ll be discovering a unique organism that no one has ever seen or studied before, giving it a name and finding out if it can help phage scientists in their research. According to phage course professor John Wertz, you’re going to dive into a field of research that doesn’t even have a textbook because it’s so cutting-edge.

"You see and learn that there isn’t always an answer for something. Basically, you can’t Google this stuff," he said.

The mighty and virtually unheard-of phage

These little viruses are 10 times as prevalent as bacteria in the environment. And that’s important because when they meet up with bacteria—say, in your large intestine—they easily infect the bacteria and either kill them or change them by leaving their DNA behind when they find somewhere else to go.

So why is this research important? It all has to do with your immune system. On the positive side of things, phage could be used to kill bad bacteria in your body in lieu of antibiotics. And since many of the bad bacteria that infect humans are growing resistant to antibiotics, phage therapy could restore health and even save lives.

You see and learn that there isn’t always an answer for something. Basically, you can’t Google this stuff,

On the other side of things, science is closing in on predatory phages as a possible cause of immune disorders like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, where phages are thought to be killing off the good bacteria in your digestive track and causing dysbiosis—an imbalance of good bacteria that leads to a weakened or inflamed immune system.

Great (un)expectations

Student Nolan Coallier found his phage from a sample collected at Calvin’s Seminary Pond. When it came time to name it, he didn’t spend a lot of time thinking of a cool name.

“When they told us early on that ‘Hey, you might discover something great, so name it something really cool,’ I thought, ‘That’s not really going to be me.’”

Turns out, Nolan did discover some- thing great: a phage with the second- largest genome of any phage ever studied. Now he wishes he had found a name to match the greatness of his discovery. He named his phage “Shaista,” because he figured it was better than some of the other names he heard for phages, like “Mac N’ Cheese” and “Zombie.”

The name “Shaista” did work out well when in June, when Nolan traveled to Washington, D.C., to present the class research to more than 300 phage experts and other students doing similar research at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“At least it didn’t sound weird to say the name over and over again in the presentation in front of important scientists.”

Nolan was selected along with classmate Anna Michmerhuizen to present at the HHMI phage conference, an honor for freshmen biology students.

“It was scary to present in front of 300 people, some being the leading scientists in phage research. But it was also rewarding to succeed and realize that I actually could give academic presentations to advanced scientists,” he said.

A perfect gateway

Nolan heard about the phage research course as a high school senior through an email he received from Calvin.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from the course.”

Still, he applied and got into the course specifically designed for first-year students interested in the sciences or health-related majors.

“I liked the lab/lecture combo a lot because I have a hard time focusing. In this class you’re actually doing stuff. Even the lecture was explaining the procedure and then doing it right there.”

For students interested in further research or upper-level science courses, the labs in the phage course are the perfect gateway.

Anna is just one of the students who completed the course and went on to do summer research with a chemistry professor. She enjoyed it for more than just its academic benefits:

“The phage course was a whole lot of fun, but more than that, it is also a really unique opportunity to be involved in hands-on research as a freshman. The phage course is one of my favorite memories from my freshman year.”

Nolan isn’t planning to do science research after Calvin, but the course gave him great lab experience to excel in his other science classes and prepare him for medical school. He hopes to become a doctor and work overseas in medical missions.

For the wonder of it all

To phage course professors John Wertz and Randy DeJong, the best part of the course is the fact that students get to venture into the unknown when they isolate
their phages.

“Some students are surprised that it isn’t straightforward, but most students are really excited that they get to determine the next step in the process. They have to look at the evidence they have just gathered, figure out what it means and take a next step,” said Prof. DeJong.

And sometimes what they discover is awe-inspiring: like a phage that infects the bacteria causing tuberculosis, or one that transfers antibiotic resistance at a rate so high that the samples have to be destroyed immediately.

The question is, what will your phage be capable of?

VERGE: winter 2014

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