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Honors College Students Decode Bacterial Viruses

For the second consecutive year, freshmen in the Honors College program have participated in an innovative genomics research program created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The students collect soil samples and isolate bacterial viruses, known as “phage,” which are later purified and the DNA extracted. Southern was chosen for the program during a competitive process in 2011.

The university has since teamed up with a company called 454 Life Sciences, a biotechnology company that is a subsidiary of the Roche Co., which has helped the students decode the genomes of the viruses. This decoding process, which is called sequencing, has been conducted at the company’s Branford facilities and the data then returned to the students for analysis, according to Katie Montgomery, a company spokeswoman.

The partnership between Southern and 454 Life Sciences has helped the students to succeed in the HHMI genomics research program, including being selected last spring for a poster presentation at the annual student-focused research meeting in Ashburn, Va. The meeting is designed for the colleges and universities participating in the genomics research program.

“Out of the 80 or so colleges and universities participating in the program, we are one of only a handful which, thanks to (454 Life Sciences), were able to sequence all of the phages that were isolated by the students,” says Nicholas Edgington, associate professor of biology and a coordinator of the program. “We are also among only a handful that offers the course primarily to non-biology students.”

He says the relationship with the company began when he asked for a tour of its sequencing lab facility in the fall of 2011. He notes that he asked 454 Life Sciences last spring if it would consider sequencing some of the phage genomes. The company agreed.

“Sequencing has become a fundamental research tool, with applications in both human and environmental microbiology,” Montgomery says. “Educating the next generation of scientists on emerging genomic technologies is critical and we are pleased to work with Nicholas Edgington (associate professor of biology and a coordinator of the program) and the team at SCSU on this project.”


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