New "Phage Hunters" course offers honors students a unique research opportunity

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July 18, 2019

A new class called “Phage Hunters” will offer Barrett Honors College students an interesting and unique research opportunity.

The year-long course is designed to actively engage students in research to discover, isolate, and computationally analyze bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, said Prof. Susanne Pfeifer, an evolutionary geneticist and faculty member in the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences.

Bacteriophages, sometimes simply called phages, have been the focus of the “Phage Hunters” program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The organizer of the program, Prof. Graham Hatfull, made international news when he used phage isolated from one of the phage-hunting teaching labs across America to save the life of a teenage girl.

Funding for the two-semester “Phage Hunters” class at ASU, which begins in August, was provided by the HHMI. Prof. Pfeifer, along with Prof. Kerry Geiler-Samerotte, an evolutionary cell biologist and faculty member in the ASU Center for Mechanisms of Evolution and School of Life Sciences, will teach the class.

Any student whose major is in the Life Sciences may take the course, which was designed with freshmen in mind. There are no prerequisites, however, it might be beneficial for students to have a basic knowledge of biology or genetics before taking the “Phage Hunters” course.

According to Prof. Pfeifer, the fall semester will start with a field trip to gather bacteriophage samples, followed by several weeks in a wet lab where students will perform experiments to isolate bacteriophages from the samples and extract their DNA.

Over the fall break, the samples will be shipped off to be sequenced and in the spring semester students will learn how to assemble and annotate bacteriophage genomes from the sequencing data and perform comparative analyses.

It is expected that the course will culminate with the dissemination of results in a peer-reviewed student-led manuscript and selected students will be able to present their work at a national symposium held at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus in Virginia.

“This class offers a wonderful opportunity to gain a well-founded, fun, and authentic research experience where students will gain new skills, ranging from critical thinking to scientific techniques to professional development, which will serve them well in the future job market, Prof. Pfeifer said.

“Our course is very unique in the sense that students will gain ownership of a scientific problem and the discoveries made by taking their own project from start to finish, and ideally, disseminating their research findings as a co-authored peer-reviewed publication,” she added.

More than 5,500 students have made scientific contributions toward a better understanding of the diversity of bacteriophages across the globe through this program, which has had important applications in both medicine and biotechnology.

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