Just a couple years ago, students now in Jenna Rickus' genomics class were anxiously awaiting college acceptance letters.
Jenna Rickus (left) keeps a watchful eye on her students, but Leah Liston and her classmates call the shots in the lab. They’re searching out new organisms and adding to scientific knowledge by sequencing a genome.
Today, they're knee-deep—literally in some cases—in the genomes of bacteriophages, viruses that infect and live off bacteria. Their research will be available to scientists all over the world.
"You wouldn't expect someone who's 19 to be sequencing genomes," says sophomore Leah Liston, a biological engineering major from Arlington Heights, Ill. "I didn't expect it."
Purdue University is among a small group of institutions selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Science Education Alliance to offer the National Genomics Research Initiative, a two-semester course developed to give undergraduate students experiences in scientific discovery. The course was offered for the first time at Purdue during the 2010-11 academic year.
"These opportunities didn't exist when I was a student," says Rickus, a biological engineering researcher whose team teaches the course with Kari Clase, a biotechnology researcher in Purdue's Industrial Technology department. "Technologies and discoveries today are moving so quickly that we have to give students research opportunities much sooner."
Clase says teaching students how to conduct research in a lecture or even a traditional laboratory format just isn't the same as forcing them to jump in feet first. "We've tried to bring research into the classroom, but you can only do that in bits and pieces," she says. "Here, they get to see how science actually works. This is multiple universities working on a project at a national level. That's how research is conducted."
In the NGRI students isolate and characterize their own bacteriophages —or phages—from local soil. From these phages, one is chosen to have its DNA sequenced and annotated.
Bacteriophages are expected to play a role in a variety of scientific fields. It's possible that phages could help attack antibiotic-resistant and harmful bacteria. Scientists also study phages for use in controlling foodborne bacteria, such as E. coli and Listeria.
Sean Kearney discovered a bacteriophage in a Purdue flowerbed. Students extracted DNA from the phage for genomic sequencing.
The Purdue students started at square one—in the soil—looking for a bacteriophage. Bacteriophages are among the most abundant forms of life on earth, so finding them should be relatively easy.
Tell that to Sean Kearney.
"We looked in eight places before we found one," says Kearney, a biological engineering and applied mathematics major from Carmel, Ind.
Students dug around numerous places on and off campus looking for bacteriophages, which are present in many types of soils. Some took samples from the mud under the Wabash River. Emilia Czyszczon, a biological engineering major from Chicago, took a boat on an underground river, scraping glacial mud from the cave wall.