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Posted: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 9:00 pm

In an effort to give biology students hands-on experience in a national research experiment, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute invited Gonzaga and several other colleges to participate in the Science Education Alliance.

"The SEA represents an innovative way by which the HHMI can significantly impact science education across the education continuum. At the center of it all is the alliance, a group of networked individuals and institutions committed to scientific advancement and science education, who realize that the two are inextricably tied together," SEA Director Tuajuanda Jordan said.

The National Genomics Research Initiative, for which the HHMI has committed $4 million, entails a two-part, yearlong Biology course. While serving as an academic opportunity, the course enables students to pursue real discoveries by researching bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, but have no direct contact with humans. Phages have become a popular item of research, however, for their potential in the field of medicine.

As bacteria become more and more immune to treatments such as antibiotics, phages provide a possible new treatment. Though they are not being used in medicine as of yet, research currently focuses on understanding phages' mechanisms in order to create "designer viruses," a report from the National Science Foundation states.

Gonzaga's research will focus on annotating, or mapping, phage genes.

In the initial stages of the lab, Gonzaga undergraduate students will isolate the phage from local soil samples. The lab will deal with Mycobacterium smegmatis, which is extremely common in soil. This bacterium is a close relative of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which is the bacterium that causes the disease Tuberculosis.

The bigger picture of this research, said  Dr. Kirk Anders, associate professor of biology, is that students will be gaining insights into how phages work, their genes and mechanisms, in regards to Mycobacterium smegmatis in order to make progress in the fight against tuberculosis.

Students cannot work with Mycobacterium tuberculosis itself, however, for a multitude of reasons. The first, Anders said, is safety. Working with tuberculosis requires myriad safety measures and is on the high end of the spectrum as far as precautionary laboratory procedures are concerned. Ensuring student safety while working with tuberculosis is not something the University could practically provide.

Further, Mycobacterium tuberculosis grows slowly, and would not be ready for the students' research to occur at the necessary pace. Mycobacterium smegmatis and tuberculosis, however, are in the same family and the goal is that the students' basic science can provide opportunity for application.

Anders said the lab provides a two-fold benefit to students. It serves the purpose of a required course for sophomore level biology students, as they will be performing basic science observations and tests while learning the concepts taught in Cell Biology and Genetics, core requirements for the biology major.

Yet in this process, Anders said, those students will have the opportunity to do some discovery science, illuminating new ways to treat tuberculosis.

Once students have identified their unique phage, they will spend the rest of the semester purifying it and extracting its DNA.

Over the winter break, DNA will be sent to the Joint Genome Institute-Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where it will be sequenced. During the spring semester, students will analyze the sequenced DNA and annotate the genomes using bioinformatics tools.

"One of the reasons we're excited about this opportunity is that it will enhance our efforts to recruit and retain a more diverse group of students in biology," biology professor Nancy Staub said.

This course will be offered to Gonzaga students in fall 2010. However, students that are interested will have the opportunity to apply prior to spring registration for the course that will run parallel to cell biology and genetics/evolution lab courses.

The lab will provide Gonzaga students with hands-on experience in doing research, allowing biology students to participate in research early in their college careers. "One of our goals in biology is that our students learn how to solve mysteries about the natural world," Anders said.  "This is what science is." 

Other universities invited to join the alliance include Baylor, Loyola-Marymount, California-Davis, and Purdue.

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