A couple of weeks ago, when Stephanie Voshell, an instructor of biological sciences in the College of Science, told her students that the lab portion of the course had ended, a resounding “No!” bellowed from the classroom.

This is because a group of Virginia Tech undergraduates have spent all fall facing the reality of research, with its unpredictable challenges and rewards, in order to discover viruses that infect bacteria.

These viruses, known as bacteriophages, are everywhere. They’re in the soil around us. They’re even in seawater. But, the amount and genetic makeup of these viruses – known simply as phages – are mostly unknown.

Knowing more about these tiny, spaceship-shaped life forms will provide insight into how phages work to alter the ecosystems where they are found. In seawater, for example, phages have been shown to destroy bacteria, which may alter how carbon is cycled. They may also play a role in how bacteria infect people or in the spread of mycobacterial infections, such as tuberculosis.

The students began the semester looking for phages around campus — near the Duck Pond, the Drillfield, the Hahn Horticulture Garden, and the lawn outside of Dietrick Dining Hall. Once found, the students honed their wet lab skills while growing and isolating their phages before meeting them close-up under a microscope. They then named their phages before entering them into the Actinobacteriophage Database, run by Graham Hatfull, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Two days from now on Thursday, Dec. 3, the students in this novel course, Phage Hunters, will reveal their newly discovered viruses in a poster session at 1 p.m. in the Fralin Hall atrium.

The new course is part of an innovative partnership with the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science program at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Kristi DeCourcy, a senior research associate in the Fralin Life Science Institute, co-established and teaches the course with Voshell, and both collaborate with Rich Walker, associate department head of biological sciences in the College of Science.

Watch Virginia Tech News for the full story on Monday.