University of Pittsburgh
June 8, 2006

How to Infect Students With a Love of Science

Pitt program helps high school students hunt for viruses; results published in national scientific journal
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PITTSBURGH-National studies may show that high school students are losing interest in science, but don't tell Andrew Hryckowian. As a sophomore at Greater Latrobe Senior High School, he began the research that would lead to his discovery of a new bacteria-eating virus, which he named "catera" after a friend's dog.

The work done by Hryckowian-who is now a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh-and three other high school students, three high school teachers, seven undergraduate and seven graduate students at Pitt, one volunteer, and seven researchers (from Pitt, the University of Montana, Cornell University, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Stanford University, and Williams College)-is published in the current issue of the journal Public Library of Science Genetics.

The paper, titled "Exploring the Mycobacteriophage Metaproteome: Phage Genomics as an Educational Platform," not only represents groundbreaking research into the nature of the bacteriophage genome, but also serves as a blueprint for getting students interested in science.

Bacteriophages ("phages" for short) are viruses that infect bacteria. The most prevalent life form on earth, some cause serious diseases like botulism and cholera. However, phages also may offer cures for bacteria-caused diseases.

Graham Hatfull, who is Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences, brings high school and undergraduate students into his "phage-hunting" research through his appointment as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professor.

In what Hatfull calls the "flagship paper" of his HHMI professorship, the researchers examined the genetic sequences of 30 bacteriophages and sorted them into more than 1,500 "phamilies" of related sequences. They noted that only 15 percent of the phamilies had similar sequences of amino acids to previously reported proteins, reflecting the "enormous genetic diversity of the entire phage population."

In addition to its research on phage genomics, the paper also covered the ideal attributes of a program for getting students into science: simplicity, flexibility, and ownership. Hatfull believes phages are an ideal platform for discovery-based education.

"Phages are an absolute gold mine of interesting biological processes and events," he said. "Studying individual phages at the genomic level gives you insight into how evolution works." And they may provide the answer to getting more Andrew Hryckowians infected with a love of science.

Also involved in the research were Pitt Biological Sciences Professors Roger Hendrix and Craig Peebles and Associate Professor Jeffrey Lawrence.

The research was funded by HHMI, the National Institutes of Health, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and the Ellison Medical Foundation.