From local soil to a global database, new viruses have been uncovered, analyzed, and recorded by undergraduate researchers in Virginia Tech’s College of Science.

The University Libraries is showcasing achievements from the Phage Hunters course in the Department of Biological Sciences. The exhibit, located on the fourth floor of Newman Library near the Graduate Study Lounge, displays the Phage Hunters coursework, comprised entirely of undergraduate research that has impacted the biological sciences field at an international level.

“The Phage Hunters class gives each student ownership of their own phage discovery and research, something that is found in few teaching lab settings. Phage Hunters also gives students the understanding and skills to move forward in undergraduate research outside the classroom,” said Kristi DeCourcy, one of the course instructors from the Fralin Life Science Institute.

A phage, or otherwise known as bacteriophage, is a virus that infects and consumes bacteria. Phage therapy is becoming more widely considered as an alternative to antibiotics in treatment of bacterial infections. This class introduces students to the basics of discovering new phages and sharing their findings through public databases.

"Students in the Phage Hunters class discover a novel phage through wet-lab research and continue studying the phage at the genome level with bioinformatics,” said course instructor Stephanie Voshell. “The ability to follow the same organism from discovery to genome publication is a unique opportunity that gives students experience with two very different, yet interconnected fields of research."

Visitors to the exhibit are able to walk through visual descriptions of the phage location and lab isolation processes, as well as see the equipment used by the researchers and photographs of each researcher’s original phage.

Exhibit program manager and learning environments librarian Scott Fralin said the public research display can be inspirational for aspiring student researchers. “First, I think it can be inspirational to other students, especially undergraduate students, when they see that other undergrads are conducting real scientific research,” said Fralin.

“Second, I think it is important to the students conducting the research to have their work shown publicly. It adds another level of thought and preparation for the students when they have to prepare their work for a public audience instead of only for their professor and classmates,” Fralin added.

In the first part of the two-semester course, students locate and isolate undocumented bacteriophages from Virginia Tech’s campus soil. These original phages are then sent to a lab for genetic sequencing. Upon the sequences’ return, students annotate them using a specialized computer software to describe the phages’ unique genetic material and functions.

“Sequence annotation is important because when a genome is sequenced, it is the annotation that makes sense of it. Those results can provide clues that lead to insights on how a particular organism functions,” explained student researcher and phage hunter Stephanie Williams.

“I came into the bioinformatic portion of the class, which was the second semester, never having done genome annotation before. So I learned a lot from that experience. It really gave me an appreciation for this process because of how complex it can be and the patience that it demands,” added Williams.

The final reports of these annotations are then published in the Actinobacteriophage database at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as GenBank, a genetic sequencing database operated by the National Institutes of Health.

The Phage Hunters exhibit accomplishes interdisciplinary engagement by sharing the research of students in the biological sciences with the diverse library population of students, faculty, and community visitors.

The Phage Hunters exhibit will run through July 29, 2018.

Written by Alec Masella

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