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Freshman class prepares to discover Idaho soil virus

Freshmen at The College of Idaho will get an opportunity to discover a new virus during their introductory biology lab course this year, thanks to the College’s acceptance into the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance.

As the first Idaho school to be invited into the prestigious Alliance, the College is participating in a national genomics research project that also aims to introduce science students to novel research at the beginning of their undergraduate experience.

Luke Daniels, assistant professor of biology, said that in the new course students will collect soil samples from several locations in the Treasure Valley and then isolate viruses – known as bacteriophages – that infect soil bacteria. Once the phages have been isolated, the students will characterize their viruses and select one to have its entire genome sequenced.

“Our biology majors already have opportunities to get involved in research projects, but this new program allows all students to be involved in research from their very first course,” Daniels said.

Ann Koga, an instructor of biology who will teach the course with Daniels, said that added element of discovery can improve students’ educational experience.

“In the current introductory biology lab, our students get experience with DNA analysis and molecular biology techniques, but nothing novel,” Koga said. “In this new course they will be using a lot of the same techniques, but they’re using them to advance human knowledge. Other participating schools report that students are so excited because they are doing something new and the results aren’t known. They have a greater sense of ownership about what they’re learning and doing in the lab.”

Approximately 40 C of I freshmen will be enrolled in the course this fall, and approximately 15 to 20 students are expected to continue into the second part of the course – a computer-based lab in which students will compare the genome of their phage with that of other phages – during the College’s winter term. At the conclusion of the course, the students will upload their findings into a national biological database, and one student will present the class’s research at a national symposium organized by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

While bacteriophages can’t infect people, gaining a better understanding of them has implications for improving human health, Daniels said.

“The relationship between phages and soil bacteria is very important for scientists to understand because phages also infect bacteria that cause human disease,” Daniels said. “It’s also important for us to understand how phages change and diversify over time, as well as their geographic diversity.”

The College of Idaho is one of only half a dozen colleges and universities accepted this year into the prestigious program, now in its fifth year.

“Ultimately, we hope that students will be more interested in and have a better idea of what research is all about,” Koga said. “Even students who aren’t going into biology I believe are likely to see science as more fun and think about how research applies in any field or career they pursue.”

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. It has a century-old tradition of educating some of the most accomplished graduates in Idaho, including six Rhodes Scholars, three Marshall Scholars, and another 11 Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College is located on a beautiful campus in Caldwell, Idaho. Its distinctive PEAK curriculum challenges students to attain competencies in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field, enabling them to graduate with an academic major and three minors in four years. For more information on The College of Idaho, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.