Saturday, January 10, 2009

Phage Genomics Research Initiative

My school has been selected to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institite's Science Education Alliance.

"The SEA’s first project is the National Genomics Research Initiative, a two-part, year-long research course offered by colleges and universities selected through a national competition. The course is aimed exclusively at beginning college students, who make real discoveries by doing research on bacterial viruses, called phage. In the first term, the students isolate colonies of phage from locally collected soil samples. Given the diversity of phage, each one is almost certain to be unique, so the students get to name their newly identified life form. They then spend the rest of the term purifying and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA.

Between terms, the purified DNA is sent to the Joint Genome Institute-Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where it is sequenced. In the second term, the students receive files containing their phage’s DNA sequence. The students then use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the DNA from their phage."

I'll be offering this course to Queens College freshmen next year. It will be real exciting to see what new phages we can isolate from the Long Island soil. Part of the process involves visualizing phage thru electron microscopy (phage are too small to be seen thru ordinary light microscopy).
I've never done this before and am looking forward to seeing phage for the first time. Other professors report that this was the highlight of the course for their students.

"The students told professors teaching the SEA course that the most exciting moment came when they saw a picture of their phage for the first time....As the image of the phage emerged on the computer screen, many students pointed and jumped up and down. One student from Hope College in Michigan called her mom from lab when she saw her phage for the first time. In Findley’s class, the students later had the equivalent of a phage fashion show, and they “oohed” and “aahed” over the phage with the longest tail or darkest head.

The students’ excitement and creativity was also reflected in the names they gave their viruses. The quirky names aren’t the normal staid acronyms often seen in the scientific literature. For example, some students named their phage after the Comedy Central duo of “Colbert” and “Jon Stewart.” Other groups chose “Peaches” and “LRRHood” for Little Red Riding Hood. A student at Spelman College named her phage “Hope” the day after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States."

The hope is that this initiative will encourage college freshmen to consider science as a career.

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