Microbiology mini-grant funds "virus hunter" lab

Dr. Jeremy Bechelli, College of the Mainland biology professor, instructs student Luis Lopez in how to isolate viruses.

A dozen College of the Mainland students peer into microscopes. Inside each petri dish of neighborhood pond water lurk myriad viruses and bacteria.

They’re looking for just one virus – mycobacteriophage. It's among the viruses that can infect and kill bacteria in the same family as those that cause tuberculosis and leprosy. This opens up possibilities for using it to treat these debilitating diseases.

“If someone has tuberculosis that’s not responding to antibiotics, these bacteria-specific viruses could be used to attack the bacteria. Using viruses to kill bacteria is called phage therapy,” said Dr. Jeremy Bechelli, College of the Mainland biology professor.

Exploring the virus helps students learn the research process and hopefully find answers to questions scientists are asking about antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases.

“If we can find information about the one we’re testing, we can learn more about these viruses,” said Luis Lopez, a student from Dickinson who wants to major in biology. “We’re learning how to isolate the virus and grow it in host bacteria.”

A COM Foundation mini grant covered supplies and a small, new COM research lab, which Bechelli calls the “virus hunter research lab.”

“It’s empowering students to understand science at a different level. They’re not just learning science in a book; they’re going out and doing science and collecting pond and soil samples in our community,” said Jeremy Bechelli. “They’re learning to conduct real scientific research and to communicate their results.”

Students are collaborating with other universities including the University of Pittsburg, which will sequence the DNA isolated from their viruses. This means that researchers will map the DNA which will help to understand these viruses from a genetic level.

Plus, the University of Texas-Medical Branch will allow students to use its powerful equipment to photograph the virus.

The opportunity to conduct scientific research is something students usually don’t do until their junior or senior years. However, to participate at COM, freshmen and sophomore students just have to enroll in a biology class and volunteer to help.

Students are also collecting pond and sea water and identifying invertebrates found with biology professor Dr. Michelle Cortez. Students interested in ecology will speculate if there are certain water conditions where viruses are isolated and if certain invertebrates thrive in these habitats with viruses.

After the research is completed, Bechelli and Cortez plan to publish the findings  with students as co-authors, which is what attracted physics student Bailey Tallman, of Dickinson, to the project.

“I wanted to have my name out there and get my name published,” said Tallman.

Abigail Deen, a nursing major from Dickinson, is also searching for other microorganisms in  pond water to learn more about microbiology and water parameters that may influence the diversity of the viruses isolated.

“This project is a good opportunity for me to understand how research works. We have to document the location of where we got the specimen and we take pictures of the specimens we find,” said Deen. “I’m looking at a different creature that was in my pond water. It’s a sand flea. It looks like an outline of a skeleton. You think there are just fish in a pond, but there’s a lot of other little creatures in there too.”

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