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Host-phage interactions and the discovery of biological novelty

Project Summary

Mycobacterium hosts and their bacteriophage pathogens have been in a coevolutionary conflict for eons. Each partner has influenced the genetic architecture of the other. At the same time mycobacterium species play a profound (e.g. M. tuberculosis) to benign (e.g. M. smegmatis) role in the human health condition. The bacteria-bacteriophage system is readily accessible to student investigation. For the last seven years an alliance of institutions, coordinated through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have been training undergraduate students to isolate and characterize mycobacteriophage from environmental samples. Insights from the phage discovery effort are used by the broader research community to improve diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for mycobacteria associated disease. While over 600 phage have been characterized, we have learned little of their natural host species. This proposal will conceptually link three courses, BIO 100 Phage Hunters, BIO 100 Bioinformatics (part of the HHMI SEA program) and BIO 221 General Microbiology, with the common theme of host pathogen coevolution. These courses will provide student training in the basic skills needed to investigate the system and pique the interest of students in pursuing independent research projects in partnership with a research training faculty. Our more advanced students will participate in the design and execution of experiments 1) relating diversity of mycobacteriophages in environmental samples to diversity of their host species; 2) investigating host range of mycobacteriophages; and 3) investigating the mechanisms of host permissiveness. We hope to increase the number of undergraduate students at the University of Maine at Machias interested in pursuing a career in the biomedical sciences by providing them an additional opportunity to engage in a multi-semester research project.

Relevance of Research

Mycobacteria cause serious human disease including tuberculosis and leprosy. Bacteriophage can be used to destroy or modify the genomes of mycobacteria. This project will contribute to the body of known bacteriophage and genome coevolution. We will inspire students to improve the human condition through research in this area.