HHMI professor's phage-hunters strike pay dirt

A handful of Pittsburgh high school and college students, openly encouraged to dig in the dirt around their homes and schools by their teachers and professors, have isolated and characterized 30 viruses that infect bacteria. As a result of their foray into the world of scientific discovery, the students are now co-authors of an upcoming research article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

In the June 9, 2006, issue of PLoS Genetics, a research team headed by HHMI professor Graham Hatfull at the University of Pittsburgh reports that it has catalogued and characterized the genomes of 30 viruses called mycobacteriophages, which are viruses that infect bacteria. Phages, as they are known, are used by researchers to learn about the genetics of diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy. Hatfull and colleagues report on 16 newly identified phages and provide a comparative analysis of those and 14 previously identified phages. HHMI investigator William R. Jacobs Jr. from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is a co-author, as are 19 students from two high schools and the University of Pittsburgh.

This is the second peer-reviewed publication from Hatfull's phage-hunting project, which breaches the traditional wall between science education and research by plunging high school and undergraduate students into research. The paper not only reveals the astonishing diversity of mycobacteriophages, it also shows that phage discovery and comparative genomics are an effective way to meld scientific discovery with education.

"The separation of the missions of education and research is very damaging," said Hatfull. "I really believe strongly that we need to bring them together. We need to engage students and make research opportunities broadly available if we are to prepare them for science in the future. Phage isolation and genomic analysis provides an engaging way to do that."

Phages are ubiquitous in nature. There are an estimated 10 to the 31st po

Contact: Jennifer Donovan
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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