Phages in Time
New grant funds research-based biology class
By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

lab

Biology professors John Wertz (left) and Randy DeJong.

At 20 nanometers, it is so tiny that it can only be seen with an electron microscope. It has no intrinsic color. It may or may not be alive. It cannot move on its own, but transfers from one place to another via water. Once it attaches itself to a bacterium, however, and injects all 10,000 base pairs of its DNA into that cell, it can replicate itself as many as 10,000 times.

“It” is a bacteriophage or phage, a virus—the most common of which is the T4 virus that infects E. coli bacteria. Come fall, the 20 first-year students in a new research-based section of biology will make phages their class project. Students will isolate phages and study their DNA.

“We’re doing something different scientifically,” said biology professor Randy DeJong. “We’re doing something new pedagogically.”

DeJong and biology professor John Wertz will teach the new class, which is funded by a three-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The HHMI grant makes Calvin one of 24 colleges and universities in the institute’s Science Education Alliance. Each of the schools in the alliance will use the HHMI funds to establish a research-based class whose assignment is to study phages and contribute to HHMI’s National Genomics Research Initiative.

microscope“The hope of the Science Education Alliance is that this will be a model or paradigm for biology courses in the future,” Wertz said. “The grant will allow the Calvin science division to incorporate research earlier in the curriculum.” He added, “We, as a department, were thinking along these lines, and this came along at the right time.”

Wertz and DeJong hope to cull their crop of student researchers for this and the future classes from high-achieving Calvin applicants who plan to major in biology. “We’ll invite incoming freshmen to apply if they’re interested,” DeJong said.

To qualify for the course, those interested must have a 3.5 grade point average, an ACT score of 28 or SAT score of 1250, and a B average in high school science courses. Interested students should look for or request an application to the HHMI Scholars program.

DeJong and Wertz are enthusiastic about the research focus of the new class. “It’s not just a cookbook lab,” Wertz said, using the term for a lab exercise that prescribes a set of directions leading to a predictable outcome. “The open-ended research provides more intellectual stimulation.” Students in the new class, he said, will perform hands-on research and ask real scientific questions.

The teaching duo likes the class’s research subject. “Phages are so numerous,” DeJong said, “that we’ll likely be discovering a phage that’s never been studied.”

“They’re in your gut. They’re in drinking water. They’re in the Sem Pond. They’re in the soil. They’re everywhere,” Wertz confirmed. “And the really, really cool thing is that we know very, very little about them and how they operate.”

Students in the class will isolate their phages from soil samples taken from around campus using electron microscopy. They will name their phages. They will also extract the phages’ DNA for sequencing purposes: “Some of the things we’ll be doing to analyze the genome will get the students thinking about the integrations between biology and computation,” DeJong said. (Integration among scientific disciplines is the goal of Calvin’s Integrated Science Research Institute, founded in the spring of 2008 through another HHMI grant.)

The new section offers a rare opportunity for incoming student biologists, said the two who will teach it: “It sets freshmen up for research they won’t normally have until their junior year,” Wertz said. “If you have freshmen with intensive research experience, you can do more when they’re sophomores, juniors and seniors. We can ask different questions.”

The teaching partners hope that, once trained in research, the students will raise the level of scientific inquiry when they are integrated into other biology classes. “If this is successful,” DeJong said, “this could be a model for future first-year courses in the biology department.”