Freshmen participate in huge research study on tiny viruses

Published: May 1, 2015

A new study appearing this week in the scientific journal eLIFE about the rapid evolution of small viruses that infect bacteria includes 59 University of Colorado Boulder co-authors, all of whom conducted research for the paper as freshmen.

The paper, which includes more than 2,500 undergraduate authors from 81 institutions worldwide, describes the evolution of a tiny virus known as a bacteriophage, or “phage” for short. Phages consist of strands of DNA or RNA surrounded by a protective protein coat called a capsid.

Since they cannot live outside of cells, phages have to commandeer bacteria to reproduce. That reproduction, it turns out, spawns rapid and vast evolution, said CU-Boulder faculty member Christy Fillman of CU-Boulder’s Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB), a paper co-author.

Phages have only a smattering of genes, which are subject to the same forces of genetic change that drive evolution in living organisms. The eLIFE study compared the complete DNA sequences of 627 different mycobacteriophages -- viruses that infect one type of bacterium, called mycobacteria -- that were isolated and analyzed by undergraduates around the world. 

By comparing the sequences and arrangement of the bacteriophage genes, the researchers were able to trace the evolutionary history of the viruses, said Fillman. 

The collaborative effort, begun in 2008 by University of Pittsburgh Professor Graham Hatfull and supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is called the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science program (SEA-PHAGES).

MCDB has participated the SEA-PHAGES program since 2009, said Fillman, who teaches a course titled “From Dirt to DNA: Phage Genomics Lab I and II” along with Professor Nancy Guild. “Most undergraduates come in not knowing what real research is like, but our students are making a real contribution to science, not just doing a classroom experiment,” Fillman said.

The CU-Boulder freshmen have so far isolated 118 different mycobacteriophages, photographed many of them under an electron microscope, and determined the complete DNA sequences for seven of them. Five of the viruses, which the students named JHC117, Perseus, Manad, Newman, and Lilith, are included in the eLIFE study.

For more information on the project visit http://phagesdb.org/about/. For more information on CU-Boulder’s MCDB department visit http://mcdb.colorado.edu.

Contact:
Christy Fillman, 303-492-8559
christy.fillman@colorado.edu
Paul Muhlrad, MCDB science communications, 303-492-0187
paul.muhlrad@colorado.edu