GUESS WHAT? Today we got our first snow in Holland. It not only blizzarded for a while, but also hailed. I don't think it's going to stick though, as the ground is fairly warm still. We'll see!
Anyways, this week I'm going to tell you a bit more about a research program I am participating in as a FRESHMAN at Hope. Funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Science Education Alliance, it's entitled Bacteriophage Genomic Research.
Bacteriophage are really interesting subjects. They're neither dead nor alive; they are viruses that infect bacteria. They utilize bacterial growth to replicate and spread. Different types of phage have different host bacteria. Our program focuses on the use of Mycobacterium smegmatis, a bacillus-shaped bacterium that is non-pathogenic. M. smegmatis is the ideal model bacterial host as it is easy and inexpensive to grow and it's fairly hearty! There are an estimated 10^31 different types of phage, and not many have been genetically sequenced and/or analyzed.
Here's a diagram of a general bacteriophage
So, what do we do? There are 20 students in our group and our goal is to individually isolate and purify a phage DNA sample to be replicated, decoded, and analyzed. Phage can be simply collected from soil or water samples (generally where decomposition is prevalent) and through a battery of tests it can be isolated from other phage. The course consists of two semesters. Throughout the fall we actually collect samples, isolate the phage, analyze the phage plaque morphology(what the phage looks like when it lyses/bursts the smegmatis cells), and prepare the DNA to be sequenced. Because sequencing is expensive and timely, only one student's phage will be selected and sequenced over Christmas break through a process called "PHAGE OLYMPICS" where we will all compete for our phage to be chosen. The spring semester will consist of computer lab hours analyzing specific genes in the phage DNA and comparing them to other known genomic sequences and deducting novel ideas about the sequence of genes and in particular, the purpose of the gene.
Intrigued? So was I. Here's a picture of the phage I've been working hard on all semester:
Isn't it cute!! My phage actually has two plaque morphologies: a small and a large with slight turbid halos!
Here's a photo taken at the beginning of the semester of our phage phamily (okay, sorry for the phage puns). :)
It's been a great learning experience and it's almost unreal that undergraduate freshman get to participate in research like we are doing with phage. I know that fellow blogger, Danielle, also is a phage alumni!
The class has also been fun because, as freshman, we don't know a whole lot of people coming in (maybe not any at all!). Our class is a consistent group of 19 others that are going through the exact same experiences you are, and some are even in a lot of the same classes. We've even had a phage pizza party at our TA's house!
Our class is far from boring. Check out this video of fellow phager's cheering one another on as we prepare a gel for electrophoresis to analyze DNA concentration and quality: