Saturday, July 12, 2014

Wilkes students play name that virus

University’s ‘phage-hunting’ class concentrates on discovering bacterial viruses

December 03. 2013 11:19PM

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WILKES-BARRE — What’s that, doc? I’ve got the “Pebbles” virus? And I just got over a bad case of “Bam-Bam.”

Yes, there really is a virus called “Pebbles,” newly discovered and named by none other than Wilkes University freshman Sierra Smith, of Lewistown. It’s actually a bacteriophage or bacterial virus that infects bacteria — and not humans — and Smith named it after her cat, not the Flintstone cartoon character.

“My mom named the cat when I was very little, she just picked a word I could say,” Smith said while working with pebbles in a petri dish — a good name for a rock group.

In fact, there’s a whole slew of freshly found and named viruses — 18 to be exact, according to assistant biology professor Christian Laing — thanks to work done by students in Laing’s sci-fi-sounding “phage-hunting” class.

It’s hands-on from the start.

Students collect soil samples, enrich it to spur microorganism growth, put it in a petri dish and look for signs of bacteriophage. After that, they go through a series of steps to help identify what type of virus they found, breeding and distilling them down to a sample pure enough to get some DNA.

That’s just the first semester. Next semester, a few samples of DNA will be sequenced and the students will start comparing genes.

And no, Laing insisted, there’s no risk of anyone getting sick. “Bacteriophage are everywhere in the soil,” he said. “Children play in the dirt all the time.”

In fact, Laing added, these particular viruses are being studied precisely because there is potential for medical use in people. Bacteriophage could conceivably be used to kill bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.

Laing created the class along with associate biology professor Kenneth Pidcock through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance.

The science may be impressive for a freshman class in a small private college, but the question that nags is “Why did you name it that?”

“I named mine ‘two Ks,’ because there are two Ks in my my name, said Nikko Bonavoglia of Olyphant, running a hand across his chest as if his name were emblazoned on his shirt (it wasn’t, he was wearing a one-K “Wilkes” shirt).

“Mine is Notorious Phage,” Tyler Houseknecht of Hazleton said, either expecting his virus will gain notoriety, or trying out a name for his own optional career as a rapper if this whole biology major things falls through.

“SVS 7” Sergey Viktor Svintozelskiy said of his virus. “Those are my initials.”

Wondering about his name? “I was born in the Ukraine,” he said, though he has lived in the Wyoming Valley most his life. He now lives in Wilkes-Barre Township.

Svintozelskiy said he enjoyed the class because “it was a very hands-on process. We actually discovered something new.”

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