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MBI course cultivates phage fanatics

Discovering new species of life on Earth seems like something done only in the deepest trenches of the oceans or the highest canopies of untouched jungles. But for Miami students in the Microbiology (MBI) 223 and 224 classes, an undiscovered creature can be found in a place as normal as the soil on which we walk everyday.

MBI 223: Bacteriophage Biology and 224: Bacteriophage Genomics, are a series of classes for undergraduate science majors who wish to delve into the research and classification of a newly-identified biological entity called a bacteriophage, or 'phage' for short. According to microbiology professor Mitchell Balish, bacteriophages are a kind of virus that infect bacteria, and may provide scientists with an evolutionary way to manipulate and fight other bacteria.

"It probably comes as a surprise to people that bacteria can be infected by viruses. The viruses that infect bacteria are called bacteriophages," Balish said. "Bacteriophages are really important in the world, because they affect processes of the bacteria, how they grow, how they interact with the environment, how they infect humans. There is a lot to learn from phages."

Just like bacteria, phages exist everywhere, in the air we breathe to the ground we walk on. And because scientists have just recently begun analyzing phages, Balish said, thousands of species are yet to be classified. The goal of MBI 223 and 224 is to give students the opportunity to find, name and classify their own species of phage, and possibly publish their findings in a scientific journal. Miami is one of at least a hundred different universities across the country to receive sponsorship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for this program.

"In 223, each student actually gets to grow the phages, isolate them," Balish said. "They are looking for a specific phage that infects a bacterium called mycobacterium, of which some species can cause tuberculosis."

Throughout the semester, the students utilize Miami University's Microscopy Center for Advanced Microscopy and Imaging, to develop images of their bacteriophages and analyze genetic material. The class then votes on whose phage will be taken to the next step in MBI 224, where the phage's entire genome is sequenced and examined by the class with computer software. Once the analytics are finalized, the findings are sent to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute based at the University of Pittsburg, and are then accumulated in a public database.

"Every student that participated becomes a published author," Balish said. "The information we gave them is compiled with all the information from other schools, and then may be published in scientific publications. Two of our phages have already been part of such a publication."

Miami is in its fourth year of the program, and has seen it give rise to many successes. Balish said much of this lies in the talent of the students, who must be driven, hard-working and have a knack for science to truly benefit from this program.

"I really enjoy interacting with the students," Balish said. "The class is limited enrollment, mostly freshmen, from all kinds of science majors. Students are very dedicated, and a lot of the work is self-selected, so we expect them to motivate themselves. They do really well in these classes."

The most beneficial aspect of this class, Balish thinks, is that students receive hands on experience in an environment many scientists may not experience until they are far into a career. And such experience inspires students to continue exploring science into the future.

"The goal is to give these students a real discovery-based experience and to see how it affects their career trajectory," Balish said. "We follow up with these students for 10 years. From research and statistics, we have found this program really helps student retention in science."