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Bacteriophages are ubiquitous organisms in all habitats where bacteria proliferate. The dsDNA tailed phages, or Caudovirales, account for 95% of all the phages reported in the scientific literature, and possibly make up the majority of phages on the planet. Over the past three decades, phage research has revealed the abundance of phages in nature, the diversity of their genomes, their impact on evolution of microbial diversity, their control of infectious diseases and their influence in regulating the microbial balance in every ecosystem where this has been explored. The major objective of the HHMI Medical Research Scholars program is to upgrade the biomedical sciences curriculum in the Department of Biology at Howard University by incorporating an early research experience. Under this award, freshman students will be exposed to a 4-year curriculum involving early immersion into an intensive research-based laboratory course under direct mentorship by research faculty. The course, SEA-PHAGES, has been embedded in the General Biology course since 2012. The biology department will expand the current SEA-PHAGES course from 44 to 100 freshman students recruited from the Howard University College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program and other members of the incoming freshman class of Biology majors. The measurable objective is to generate 400 underrepresented minority (URM) students transitioning into STEM and biomedical enterprises over the 5 year award period; successfully transitioning 10 students per year into graduate research programs. Briefly, during the first semester of this laboratory-intensive course, students will isolate bacteriophages that infect Mycobacterium spp. and other environmental bacteria from soil and water, purify the viruses through successive rounds of infection, visualize the phages via electron microscopy, extract genomic DNA, and have it sequenced. During the second semester, students will explore the following areas in the bioinformatics portion of PHAGES: gene prediction, genome annotation (each class will complete the annotation of at least one genome), functional annotation, comparative genomics, phylogeny and taxonomy. Additionally, during this semester students will delve further into the molecular characterization of the phage genomes. This characterization will include restriction enzyme profiling and PCR screening for genes of interest, as well as applying the Bacteriophage Recombineering with Electroporated DNA (BRED) method to generate mutants and study gene function in phage Butters and phages isolated by Howard University students. Students will prepare written papers and oral presentations, as well as generate posters for presentation at Howard University's annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, ABRCMS and other scientific meetings. Students will also benefit from access to upgraded molecular biology laboratories, off-campus visits to other research laboratories including those that specialize in phage biology and quantitative biology, attendance at STEM workshops, and from seminars presented by visiting scientists. Upon completion of the course, students will have the opportunity to utilize PHAGES experiences and techniques in sophomore and junior-level courses, in their Honors thesis research, independent investigations research and in off-campus research experiences. The program will also allow students to understand host-parasite relationships, biological diversity, and infectious disease epidemiology. Drs. Courtney Robinson, Leon Dickson, Broderick Eribo, and Ayele Gugssa are course directors and laboratory coordinators. Drs. Atanu Duttaroy, Anna Allen and Heyamet Ullah will provide lectures and laboratory experiences in molecular biology and bioinformatics.

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Courtney Robinson, PhD
Howard University
Department of Biology
415 College Street NW; E.E. Just Hall, Room 222;
Washington, DC 20059-0001


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