News | July 02, 2015

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Student ‘Virus Hunters’ publish research in peer journal

FGCU’s Virus Hunters form a human phage. Photo courtesy of Sharon Isern
FGCU’s Virus Hunters form a human phage. Photo courtesy of Sharon Isern

Students and faculty involved in FGCU’s “Honors Virus Hunters” course helped produce a research paper that has been accepted for publication in eLife, a highly ranked peer-reviewed scientific journal for the biomedical and life sciences.

The paper’s title may not mean much to a nonscientist: “Whole genome comparison of a large collection of mycobacteriophages reveals a continuum of phage genetic diversity.” But its publication reflects how FGCU faculty and students are contributing to broader scientific knowledge and understanding of common viruses, known as bacteriophages, that seek out and destroy bacteria. Phages are the most abundant and genetically diverse organisms in the biosphere, existing in all environments including soil and sea water. Yet surprisingly little is known about them.

One way to learn about an organism is to decipher its genome, or genetic material. The current number of complete phage genomes in GenBank, a comprehensive national genetic database, is 1,781. This includes phage genomes found in 120 bacterial hosts, which corresponds to about 2 phage genomes per host. The Virus Hunters’ paper, with 627 phage genomes isolated from one host, is the most comprehensive study of phage diversity for any single bacterial host.

“Given that there are globally an estimated 1031 phages, much work remains to be done,” says Professor Sharon Isern of FGCU’s Department of Biological Sciences, who teaches Virus Hunters. “Phage discovery is the outer space of biology, and we do not yet know its outermost boundaries. We can only begin to guess at the useful discoveries that we’ll make in this vastness.”

This paper could not have been possible without the participation of 2,839 authors, mostly undergraduate students who discovered and characterized the vast number of phage genomes.

VirusHunter-640
“Honors Virus Hunters” gives underclassmen a unique opportunity for hands-on research.

FGCU Virus Hunters gave 15 underclassmen – mostly freshmen – a unique opportunity for hands-on research and an unusually early experience of being published.

“This authorship was the result of two semesters’ worth of work,” Isern says. “The class discovered, named, characterized and annotated two of the viruses that were used in the publication — Omnicron and Power. The reviews of the paper were very positive.”

Their work was supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science program (SEA-PHAGES), a genomics project that involves universities across the country and increasingly across the globe. SEA-PHAGES has been collecting sequenced viruses to advance understanding of their diversity.

The immense population of phages allows students to isolate their own unique viruses and encourages them to feel a sense of ownership of the science.

“Because the collective discoveries by many students generate new scientific insights, the program creates a scientific community of students engaged in authentic research,” the students’ paper says.

Programs like “Virus Hunters” underscore FGCU’s efforts to engage students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has recommended replacing traditional introductory laboratory courses with course-based research experiences that inspire underclassmen and promote retention in STEM fields.

*SEA-PHAGES Florida Gulf Coast University authors are:

Ashley, Brandon D.

Baer, Tasha D.

Czarnecki, Karolina W.

Deneweth, Renee M.

Ellis, Shelby A.

Gatt, Samantha M.

Isern, Sharon

Jenkins, Meagan M.

Lang, Joseph F.

Marfizo, Cody J.

McMahon, Connor W.

Michael, Scott F.

Power, Taylor R.

Rosales, Kimberly A.

Walter, Rachel S.

Wozny, Michael J.

Yori, Santiago