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GGC students get chance to discover new bacterial virus

LAWRENCEVILLE — Students at Georgia Gwinnett College will soon search for undiscovered organisms in common dirt, thanks to an innovative genomics course funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Georgia Gwinnett is one of only 12 colleges and universities chosen through a competitive application progress to provide the National Genomics Research Initiative course for three years beginning this fall. Other institutions recently selected include Johns Hopkins University, University of Florida, Ohio State University and Brown University.

“This is an exciting opportunity for GGC,” said Thomas Mundie, dean of the School of Science and Technology. “This innovative course will expose non-major biology students to the excitement of scientific discovery and offer majors in biology, mathematics and information technology with a hands-on introduction to the rapidly expanding field of bioinformatics.”

Since 2008, almost 1,700 students at 40 colleges and universities have spent a year discovering organisms, often in soil samples from their own campuses, according to a news release. As part of the course from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance, the students — primarily freshmen — have isolated 1,400 soil-dwelling bacterial viruses, called phages, and analyzed the DNA sequence of almost 100 different phages.

During the fall semester, student groups will collect soil samples from across the campus and use research laboratory techniques to isolate and grow their phages, the news release states.

After the groups extract DNA from their phage samples, instructors will select one group’s sample for sequencing. This selection will be based on how well the students conducted their work, including a group presentation on the research, the news release states.

During winter break, DNA from the selected phage will be sequenced at one of several research centers across the nation, and the results will be sent back to GGC.

“Because there are billions of different types of phages, there is a good chance that our students will discover a previously unknown phage,” Mundie said. “If so, the students will be able to name it.”

In the second semester of the course, students majoring in biology, mathematics and information technology will work together to use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes from the phage’s DNA sequence, the news release states. If the phage is unique, all involved students may collaborate on submitting a paper on their research to a scientific journal.

“It is rare for one course to offer such educational benefits to students in different majors,” Mundie said. “Non-majors will learn how the scientific method works by studying something they have personally collected. In addition, it offers a practical experience for students majoring in fields that compromise the multidisciplinary area of bioinformatics.”

Several members of the GGC School of Science and Technology’s faculty collaborated on the application for Science Education Alliance membership, led by Alessandra Barrera, assistant professor of biology; Melinda Maris, assistant professor of biology; and Latanya Hammonds-Odie, assistant professor of biology.

Located in Chevy Chase, Md., Howard Hughes Medical Institute created the Science Education Alliance in 2007 to develop resources to enable undergraduate science educators to present innovative courses and programs. The National Genomics Research Initiative is the alliance’s first program, and the Medical Institute has committed $4 million to the course.