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College of Idaho freshmen discover soil virus

Not many college freshmen get a chance to discover a new virus and contribute to the fight against diseases affecting humans. Yet that’s exactly what students taking a College of Idaho introductory biology course this year have done as part of a national genomics research project.

In fact, the virus that the C of I freshmen isolated this year and christened “RhynO” is the first mycobacteriophage to be identified in Idaho, said Kaden Schultz of South Jordan, Utah. Schultz is one of the students involved in the research project who recently were honored by the Idaho Academy of Science for presenting their work at the organization’s annual symposium.

“I really liked doing this because it’s your own research project, it wasn’t already set up for us,” Schultz said. “It’s exciting to not know what you’re going to find when you get started.”

Schultz and his classmates are the first Idaho college students to participate in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance, designed to introduce science students to novel research as early as possible. Approximately 40 C of I freshmen collected soil samples from several locations in the Treasure Valley in the fall, then isolated viruses – known as bacteriophages – that infect soil bacteria. Once the phages were isolated, the students characterized their viruses and selected one, RhynO, to have its entire genome sequenced.

While bacteriophages can’t infect people, gaining a better understanding of them has implications for improving human health said Luke Daniels, an assistant professor of biology who is co-teaching the course with Ann Koga, instructor of biology and pre-health professions advisor.

“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.”

In late March, Schultz and fellow freshman biology students Jessica Lambright of Middleton and Anna Chase of Eagle presented their research to the Idaho Academy of Science, winning the first place award for best poster presentation at the symposium. On April 27, the students also will present their work to the public at The College of Idaho’s annual Student Research Conference (www.collegeofidaho.edu/student-research-conference).

C of I students currently are reviewing RhynO’s genome sequence, and near the end of the spring semester they will conduct a variety of experiments in order to better understand the phage’s genes.

At the conclusion of the course, students will upload their findings into a national biological database, and Schultz will present the class’s research at a national symposium in June organized by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as part of its Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science project. Then, in fall 2013, a new crop of C of I freshmen will begin searching for another previously undiscovered soil virus.

Schultz, who is in the C of I’s dual-degree pharmacy program, said the opportunity to do undergraduate research drew him to the College, though he didn’t expect to jump into a medical-related research project his first semester on campus.

“I knew I wanted to do research eventually because it would help me with graduate school, but I never thought I’d get an opportunity as a freshman to start on a research project that I could potentially follow through my whole undergraduate experience,” he said.   

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 seven 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.