CORVALLIS, Ore. - Magnified, they look a bit like robots that NASA would send to explore distant planets, but phages - also known as bacteriophages - are actually tiny viruses that infect and destroy bacteria. For the last two years, Oregon State University freshmen in a unique biology lab have been researching and documenting phages, and their work is contributing to a Howard Hughes Medical Institute project.
In fact, a phage discovered at OSU - and named "Colbert," after Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert - could hold the key to treating tuberculosis. That phage, along with others with names like Noggin and Ostrich, are being archived for later use by scientists with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Phages are the perfect research subject. Not only are they incredibly common and easy to find, but some of them may help battle bacteria that sicken and kill humans. OSU is one of 12 universities around the country selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to create an undergraduate genomics lab for freshmen and sophomore students that specifically researches and catalogues phage DNA. This three-year genome research project provides undergraduates with the opportunity to do research that is published and could be used by other researchers to develop treatments for tuberculosis.
"This is one of the first national projects to change the way undergraduates experience biology labs," said co-instructor Barbara Taylor, a professor of zoology, who co-leads the lab along with Dee Denver, an associate professor of zoology, and graduate teaching assistant Christine Schnitzler. Students are taking the phage lab in place of a traditional lab associated with an introductory biology course, and must apply to be in the special lab.
"This is inquiry-based learning, and it has really positive outcomes in terms of grades," Denver said. Not only do the students score better in their regular biology courses after participating in the lab, but they are more likely to view a career in science as a positive possibility.
"It has a big effect on confidence," Denver said. The students are in charge of their research, he added, and although they have the support of their co-instructors and several undergraduate helpers, they are expected to work fairly independently.
While each student gathers, identifies and researches their own phage, they also work in teams, meaning that there is a lot of interaction and cooperation in the lab, an important skill set to have if they pursue work in labs later. Several of last year's students, like Daryl Khaw of Portland, have found work in OSU labs, based in part on their experience in the biology lab.
"It's a great experience you can't get in a regular lab," Khaw said. He enjoyed his time so much that he's returned to help out this year's crop of students. "I know last year was a big learning experience and I needed a lot of help," so he decided he'd be part of the support staff for this year's group of students.
Freshman Katlyn Taylor decided to apply for the special lab because she felt it would be challenging, and wouldn't repeat the information she'd already learned in her high school advanced placement science courses in Oregon City.
"I like that (the lab) is small and the teachers are excited about what we're learning," Taylor said. "And you get to be a published scientist."
Taylor has named her phage "Darth Phager." Her teammate, Roopa Sriram, is an Honors College freshman from Beaverton, who also feels the lab provides an exciting challenge.
"Initially I thought this was going to be awesome and it's turning out to be exactly that," she said. She likes how the research keeps students thinking on their feet, and how much of their work is done independently.
"There's a certain amount of autonomy," in the lab, she said. And working with "Phagebacca" as she's named her phage, has given her the chance to work in a lab setting not unlike she'd experience as a medical student.
"I want to be a doctor," she said, "and research is a huge part of that."
Once the phage-sequencing project is complete, the Joint Genome Institute will examine the student's work, and the most promising of the complete samples will be sequenced and then sent on for research purposes. Last year's selected phage was Colbert, but this year's most successful phage has yet to be determined.
To view the lab Web site, see http://biology.science.oregonstate.edu/courses/genomics-lab/
To see the 2007-2008 student blog, go here http://osugenomicslaboratory.blogspot.com/
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Dee Denver, 541-737-3698