Students in Dan Westholm's "Bacteriophage Discovery" class are uncovering the mystery behind a form of virus, which could potentially lead to big breakthroughs in the field of medicine.
Through a competitive grant awarded to St. Scholastica by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Westholm's students are taking an innovative approach to learning about bacteriophage.
It might be a gold mine for science.
"This is real research," said Westholm, an assistant professor of biology. "The phage the students are isolating have never been isolated before."
The class is searching for mycobacteriophage, viruses that interact and kill mycobacteria, a type of bacterium. The phage, invisible to the naked eye, are known to be widely present in everyday life.
When properly harnessed and grown in a hospitable environment, phage have the potential to eat away at certain diseases that are harmful to people. Meanwhile, they are harmless to humans.
It is known that bacteriophage can compromise the infectious cells that cause tuberculosis, staph infections, bone infections and skin infections. Utilizing phage to treat these illnesses - known as phage therapy - is becoming more attractive in light of antibiotics in some cases losing effectiveness.
Students work in pairs and are given the tools to scoop up their own phage found in soil around campus, witness the phage form plaques in a petri dish and watch it grow. It is a long-term project that each pair oversees - not a daily lesson with a lab that follows, like most typical science classes.
"I've really enjoyed this class so far because it's more like a real-life science experiment, and it makes me excited about what I am going to get to do in the future," said sophomore Heidi Nelson.
"Definitely more hands-on," agreed Jake Elwood, a junior.
"We're not learning a specific lecture every day," said Jamie Morrissette, Elwood's class partner. "We work at our own pace to try and isolate our own phage."
St. Scholastica is the only college in Minnesota, and one of few in the Upper Midwest, that offers the course. Just 70 other colleges nationwide are taking on the same experiment, most of them along the East Coast. The course is entirely funded by the Howard Hughes Institute, including all supplies, training, traveling and sequencing of the phage genome.
St. Scholastica's application "rose to the top," said Lucia Barker, program officer of the Science Education Alliance at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, MD. "This is designed to be a course in which the faculty and students do research together, and generate publishable data. And at the same time the students are learning lab techniques and science... Dan (Westholm) is one of our most excellent faculty. We have about 160 to 175 faculty" in the program, "and Dan's a stand-out. He really does a great job with this approach to learning for his students."
Isolating the phage is only the first lesson in the year-long project. Students will study the DNA inside each of their specimens. The class will select one phage from among all the specimens that will have its genome sequenced at Virginia Commonwealth University over Christmas break. In addition, students will take a field trip to the Mayo Clinic and use the electron microscope facility to take pictures of the physical structure of their phage; the data will be used to compare with phage genomes from other schools nationwide.
During the spring semester, the students will analyze and annotate all the As, Ts, Cs, and Gs that comprise the mysterious double-helix strand of DNA in the isolated phage.
"With that big long sequence, we need to find out where the genes are," said Westholm. "At this point, we can compare the genomes to other schools, we can see what genes are shared, why they are shared, how are they are different."
In the spring, Westholm and two other students will travel to Washington D.C. to present their data at a nationwide symposium. The genome sequence will also be published on GenBank, a searchable database managed and maintained by the National Institutes of Health.
From there, the rest may someday be medical history.
Read more about the discoveries Jake Elwood and Jamie Morrissette have uncovered through their research.