New biology course hopes to expand research opportunities for freshmen

Radford University Department of Biology Chair and Associate Professor Justin Anderson is co-teaching a new course this semester that’s getting students excited about research and their hands, a little dirty.

In Anderson and Biology Professor Georgia Hammond’s Molecular Biology course, students are collecting soil samples and isolating viruses from the samples that infect a particular bacterial species.  

The course is possible due to Radford’s acceptance into the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program. SEA-PHAGES is in its 11th year of recruiting colleges from around the world to isolate and investigate viruses that infect Actinobacteria. Its two goals are to study evolutionary relationships among these viruses and to increase persistence in the sciences for first-year students.

Forty-four students - mostly juniors and seniors - are enrolled in the Radford University class, which is split into two sections. Future courses will be taught at the freshman level. Universities from across the United States that also received HHMI grants have students conducting similar research.

“Since no one has ever done this before [at Radford University], nobody knows anything about the viruses we might discover,” Anderson said. “Different schools around the country are doing the same project, and they’re going to be coming up with phages totally different from ours. So, this is very unique.”

Students collected most of the soil samples in Radford at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester. Now, more than halfway through the semester, students have isolated the viruses and are “growing them up,” Anderson explained.

“At the point where we’ve amplified the viruses enough, we’re going to go get pictures of them,” Anderson continued. 

Virginia Tech has a transmission electron microscope that will take pictures of each student’s individual bacteriophage (phage), or virus. From the photos, Anderson said, students will be able to do some preliminary classification of what they’ve found. At the end of the semester, they’ll get an even more in-depth look at the results when they send four of the viruses – two per class section – to the University of Pittsburgh, which will sequence the viruses. 

Anderson explained the genome sequencing process.

“It’s the same for humans,” he said. “They [University of Pittsburgh] would basically take your DNA, and we’d get the entire sequence of what your DNA is made of. We can figure out what genes you’ve got and what variants of those genes you’ve got. However, sequencing is much easier for viruses. Humans have something like 3 billion nucleotides in their DNA. The biggest virus this project has sequenced so far only has 187,000.”

The University of Pittsburgh will send the genome sequences back to Anderson and Hammond by the beginning of the spring 2019 semester. Students who continue with the course will spend a good chunk of that semester doing annotation, which is figuring out where every gene is and, if they can, figuring out what genes do based on their similarity to other genes that they’ve already identified, Anderson explained.

“Because these viruses are new, we anticipate submitting the results for some sort of publication,” he said. “Students in the class will be co-authors, and that’s a great perk to get them to continue with the research next semester.”

Teaching this new course has been both very rewarding and time-consuming, Anderson said, but completely worth it for many reasons.

“One reward is just the scientific aspect,” he said. “Viruses that infect bacteria - we don’t know a lot about them. Our research is contributing to the body of scientific knowledge. Another is the fact that our students are doing this research. This is a novel scientific study. It’s not like they walk into the lab and I say ‘In the next three hours you have to do this, and I know exactly what the answer is and if you don’t get my answer, it’s wrong.’ I don’t have any idea of what they’ll discover…That’s a little bit different and for many students, that’s a little uncomfortable because there is no right answer. But it challenges them.”

Most importantly, Anderson said, “Students are excited about this.” 

“As instructors, it’s fun to go into the class and students are asking, ‘What are my results?’ ‘What are we doing next?’ They’ve gotten excited about this project, and ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.”

Nov 5, 2018
Mary Hardbarger
(540) 831-5150