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In the lab: Professors discuss CrimD discovery

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It is official. The bacteriophage discovered in the College’s picturesque Crim Dell by freshmen biology students never had been seen before.

The unique lifeform, appropriately named CrimD by the students, is a virus that infects a bacterium. The students who dug it up were members of the research-oriented teaching lab led by biology professors Mark Forsyth, Margaret Saha and Kurt Williamson. The professors were “team-teaching” a yearlong seminar on the genetics of bacteriophages under the sponsorship of the Science Education Alliance of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

The seminar collected and processed soil samples in the fall semester of 2008, hunting for phages—particularly novel ones. Working in their lab in the brand-new Integrated Science Center at William & Mary, the freshmen employed state-of-the-art lab techniques to isolate phages and prepare the DNA of the samples for sequencing—or genetic blueprinting—at Los Alamos National Lab.

Preliminary results from Los Alamos indicated that CrimD was a novel strain, previously unrecorded. As the second semester began, the lab began using a number of sophisticated bioinformatics techniques to verify their discovery, filling in gaps of the Los Alamos sequencing and examining CrimD’s individual genes. Within the past few weeks, the phage lab was able to establish CrimD’s singular pedigree.

“Oh, it's a new virus all right,” Forsyth said. “In fact, it is not falling into any of the known clusters of the viruses that infect this species of bacterium.”

CrimD is not only a new phage not related to any other known phage groups, but its DNA also contains genes that have never been found in any organism, he added. CrimD also has a potential clinical future: Saha notes that the medical community is investigating phage therapy as an alternative to antibiotics.

“So little is known about bacteriophage, and the diversity is overwhelming,” Williamson said. “This could give us a lot of information about selection, evolution, diversity—information that just doesn’t exist right now.”

Saha said the project could not have happened without the vision of the HHMI. Forsythe said it was able to happen at a higher level due to the vision behind the College’s new Integrated Science Center. It is an example, they said, of how research can be done.

Recently the professors agreed to be videotaped inside their teaching lab, where they were making sure the students understood the anatomy of a gene and the structure so that they could identify the different elements of the sequence and link it back to the biology, Saha said. Also captured was Williamson announcing the uniqueness of the CrimD discovery.