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College of Coastal Georgia students Jamie Richardson and Ashley Steverson use laboratory techniques to hunt for phage.

College of Coastal Georgia students now have the chance to work on research with the potential to save lives.

The School of Arts and Sciences recently launched two research courses, in which students have discovered novel bacteriophages, or viruses that infect bacteria.

The Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (SEA-PHAGES) program is a two-semester, discovery-based, undergraduate research course. Students can participate in one or both courses.

The program is administered by Ebery Family Professor of Biotechnology Graham Hatfull at the University of Pittsburgh in conjunction with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education division. More than 100 universities in the United States and abroad are participating in the program.

Bacteriophages, also called “phages,” are viruses that infect and replicate within bacteria and archaea, ultimately killing their host bacteria. Phages are target-specific and can attack host bacteria without harming the human body.

The use of phages can be an effective tool to combat bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

Gerard White, associate professor of biology at CCGA, applied and received an invitation to join the SEA-PHAGES program and now instructs SEA-PHAGES Laboratory Research I at the college.

“It’s pretty exciting when you think that a student could find something and it could be useful,” White said. “There’s other potential uses for bacteriophage as well, such as phage therapy, or we could just find genes in the bacteriophage that could be useful for humankind in general. When you think of the far-reaching possibilities, it’s just very exciting.”

He said students hunting for phage have collected soil samples from various locations, including in backyards, a compost heap, the marsh and mud.

Students have learned new lab techniques to isolate phage from their samples and employed techniques from previous courses.

After isolating phages, students’ samples were sent to Augusta University for transmission electron microscopy (TEM) — a technique in which a beam of elections is transmitted through a specimen to form an image.

Many students have continued onto the second phase of the course, which is being taught by Holly Nance, assistant professor of biology.

At the end of the SEA-PHAGES Laboratory Research I and II courses, a professor and one CCGA student will have the opportunity to attend the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s annual SEA Symposium that focuses on SEA-PHAGES research from students and faculty members around the country.

The selected student will present a poster about what the research classes discovered about the Phage Karate genome.

White said he’s been amazed by the quality of SEA-PHAGES presented by students at the symposium.

Spotlight on Schools appears Thursdays. Contact Lauren McDonald at lmcdonald@thebrunswicknews.com to suggest a topic for a column.

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