Crim Dell and LeBron James

Students discover and name bacteria-infecting viruses

DNA sequence segment for microbes named by studentsWhat does the Crim Dell have to do with LeBron James? Both inspired students to name microbes after them in a teaching laboratory/research collaboration funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance, leading to a national publication. . Now in its fourth year, the Phage Lab at William and Mary has been isolating new viruses that infect the bacterium Mycobacterium smegmatis, sequencing the viral genomes, and attempting to make sense of the gnetic contents. "CrimD" is the name of the virus that was sequenced during Phage Lab’s maiden voyage in 2008.   William and Mary students named the virus after the Crim Dell on campus, where they discovered the virus. Students at James Madison University named a particularly large phage "LeBron" after the formidable basketball player LeBron James.

W&M students enrolled in the Phage Lab not only earned credit and learned techniques in molecular and genetic biology--they collaborated with dozens of other students and faculty and co-authored a paper documenting their research and discovery of viral diversity "Expanding the Diversity of Myobacteriophages: Insights into Genome Architecture and Evolution".

This level of discovery harkens to what biological explorers were doing in the 1700s. It's exciting because "we just don't know what the limit is on the genetic and functional diversity encoded in these phage genomes--and that really extends to virses in general" says Kurt Williamson, W&M Biology faculty. "Consider that that PLoS One paper is over 80 distinct phages that have been sequenced that all are known to infect a single strain of bacteria. That says nothing about the 10 to 20 additional phages that each school in the SEA (48 schools) {has} isolated. We've isolated many more than 80, so we have no idea how much bigger that number will get--they all infect the same host organism. That says a lot about the potential diversity of viruses out there at large. Are there 80+ phages for every bacterium out there? We don't even know how many bacterial species exist!"

The pace of discovery is quickening rapidly. Sequencing is getting cheaper almost by the day, and we have next gen sequencing platforms that used to be done by Sanger sequencing, now with Pyro sequencing, a single plate yields millions of sequences all at once. Williamson notes:

"If we had the funding for it you could literally sequence one virus genome in a day. That's where we are, this is the kind of world we live in, in biology that's where everything's heading, we look at sequencing. Especially with bacteria…these students are getting hands-on experience with this, as they continue with their studies at William and Mary, as they go on to graduate school in this experience early on is crucial."