GREENVILLE, Pa.—Thiel College Department of Biology students head into the second phase of research under the guidance of Associate Professor of Biology Sarah J. Swerdlow, Ph.D. to find microscopic bacteriophages in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
SEA-PHAGES is an acronym for Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics Evolutionary Science. The program is an undergraduate research-based discovery course where the students take two semesters of research within the lab portion of their courses.
The tiny bacteriophages that fight bacteria are found by digging up soil and using microbiology techniques to analyze viable samples. From there, their genomes are meticulously annotated by the students.
“The goal of the program is to have students in their first or second year in college involved in real, novel, research,” Swerdlow said. “This program has data to show that students in the program have higher engagement in the sciences and have higher retention in the sciences. It’s important to students because it allows them to perform science experiments early in their career and gives the students opportunities to put this lab experience on their resume, and publish novel research on GenBank, which is a national databank used by scientists all over the world.”
The program is jointly run by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Alliance division and a group at the University of Pittsburgh run by Graham Hatfull, Ph.D.
“Going into my junior year I was invited to go to the wet lab training through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to prepare for bringing the program here,” senior Ashley Prout ’20, a biology major from Topsham, Maine, said.
The fall 2019 genetics class had the phage, Renzie, published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information database. They spent the semester annotating the genome where the sequence was analyzed to figure out where the specific genes are and how they work inside the genome.
“We all have autonomy over a project and we each get to discover new bacteriophages. I was always used to labs that followed exactly what the procedure said and had pre-determined results, but with SEA-PHAGES there is a level of unpredictability that felt like real scientific research,” Prout said. “I intend on doing research for the rest of my life and this program helped affirm that choice for me since it pushes you to think independently.”
Phages have been studied for decades, but have not been accepted into general western medicine. Because phages are extremely specific to the bacteria they infect. Finding the right phage could lead to a way to kill bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Recently, in the United States, phages have been used as a last resort, but many scientists believe they are the most promising alternative to antibiotics. This program hopes to get students involved in meaningful research early in their undergraduate career by having the students discover new phages that can be studied and used in medicine.
“My favorite part of the entire project is the fact that I was able to find a bacteriophage from a soil sample, purify it, and name it. Not only did I get to work with my own phage throughout the process, but I was also able to sequence the genome this past semester and will hopefully have it entered into GenBank. Being able to work on a phage that I found and continue with it throughout the entire process has been a huge privilege and helped me develop my aseptic technique and other lab skills,” senior Breanna Mesich ’20, a biology major from Jeannette, Pa., said. “Since Thiel first implemented the SEA-PHAGES project with Dr. Swerdlow, Ashley Prout, and I doing a test run on our campus in fall 2018, it has been developed into a two-part course which students in microbiology do the wet lab research, while students in genetics do the bioinformatic research on the selected phages found from the previous semester. The overall goal of finding phages is to hopefully introduce phage therapy to the medical world and use this as a replacement for antibiotics.”
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