“We had students demand to work on this on Saturdays,” Kart says. “We’ve never had that experience in any other class.”

Editor’s Note: We sent a writer to spend a limited amount of time with two professors to learn as much as he could about their combined research, then tell us about it. Here’s that account.

My meeting with Associate Professor of Bioinformatics Charles Hauser and Associate Professor of Computer Science Michael Kart has the structure of a class and the energy of a TED Talk.

The two professors take me to a reserved classroom, hand me a syllabus and go through a PowerPoint presentation. I’ve never seen anyone so excited about viruses.

Hauser and Kart tell me about the courses they’re teaching on bacteriophage (phage), which are viruses that infect and replicate inside a bacterium and have been used to fight bacterial infections. Phage are the most abundant biological entity in existence. Anywhere there’s a bacterium, like a lake or soil, there are phage. That’s important because certain kinds of phage could lead to breakthroughs in treating bacterial infections when there’s antibiotic resistance.

In Soil Microbiology and Bacteriophage Genomics, students get soil samples from locations like Lady Bird Lake, isolate phage from those samples, purify them and extract DNA — and a selected DNA sample is sequenced. Then, by analyzing the DNA sequence, students find the locations of the genes and annotate their function.

It’s not a quick process, but students love it.

This was all made possible by St. Edward’s University becoming an associate member of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute SEAPHAGES
project. As part of the project, students submit their phage metadata to the national database at PhagesDB.org and their physical phage DNA samples to the Pittsburgh Bacteriophage Institute. The annotated genome of one of the phage is submitted to GenBank for publication. Students have the opportunity to present their results at the SEA-PHAGES Symposium.

Furthermore, this project contributes to the world’s knowledge of phage, Hauser says, as he wraps up our conversation with an especially excited tone.

“This genome has not been sequenced before, so the students are discovering something novel,” he says. And maybe contributing to a scientific breakthrough.

By Jon Fortenbury

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