Biological Science joins international program to give students first-hand experience with virus discovery and genomics - The University of Tulsa
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Biological Science joins international program to give students first-hand experience with virus discovery and genomics

The University of Tulsa’s Department of Biological Science was recently accepted into the international SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance: Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) program.

SEA-PHAGES is administered by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and Graham Hatfull’s group at the University of Pittsburgh. Its aim is “to increase undergraduate interest and retention in the biological sciences through immediate immersion in authentic, valuable, yet accessible research.” Currently, 230 colleges and universities across the United States, as well as in Canada, France, Mexico, and Nigeria, belong to the program, including such research powerhouses as Arizona State, Brown, Emory, McGill, and UCLA.

Photograph of Katelyn Mika
Katelyn Mika

Assistant Professor Katelyn Mika led TU’s effort to join SEA-PHAGES. “Membership in this stellar program will enable us to remodel two of our core labs for biological science majors and pre-health students,” Mika said. “Our focus is on expanding the roles of BIOL 1711 and BIOL 2121 to offer course-based research experience. These labs will center on, in turn, discovery and genomics, with the goal of enhancing students’ understanding of cell biology, molecular biology, and genetics.”

Students in BIOL 1711: Introduction to Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory will collect, isolate, and begin characterization of bacteriophages. Earth’s most abundant biological agent, these viruses target and infect bacteria. Beyond discovering new bacteriophages, in the biomedical field research is focused on phage therapy, which investigates and trials their use to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Photograph of Mark Buchheim
Mark Buchheim

“There are more bacteriophages than all other viruses and cellular organisms combined,” explained Mark Buchheim, chair of biological science in TU’s Oxley College of Health & Natural Sciences. “Yet, despite their abundance, like most viruses, bacteriophages are too small to be seen with standard light microscopy. To conduct their investigations, TU students will deploy our high-resolution transmission electron microscope, one of the key technologies for characterizing bacteriophages.”

As part of this discovery phase, students will also learn to isolate nucleic acid from bacteriophages and then submit their select nucleic acid samples to HHMI for genomic sequencing. Marsha Howard, a biology instructor, and Richard Portman, director of TU’s Center for Electron Microscopy, will oversee this course.

Students who complete BIOL 1711 can build on their discovery research by enrolling in BIOL 2121: Genetics Lab. This genomics phase will involve annotation of bacteriophage nucleic acid sequences prepared by HHMI and bioinformatic analysis of those annotated genomes. Oversight will be shared between Mika and Brett McKinney, the Warren Foundation Chair in Bioinformatics in TU’s College of Engineering & Computer Science.

Photograph of Microbiology faculty and students looking at a monitor in a lab“Through SEA-PHAGES, TU students will analyze new samples from local sites, almost certainly guaranteeing novel discoveries and expanding scientists’ knowledge of these organisms,” Mika commented.

In addition to fostering development of new skills and knowledge, the university’s SEA-PHAGES membership will enable students and faculty to present the results of their investigations at national meetings held by HHMI. Students and faculty also may collaborate on preparing manuscripts that document their research findings and submit them for potential publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals.