"The students will come out with more advanced skills that typically they would not get until later in their college career."

Each year, a dozen sophomores in Emily Stowe's class go out searching for new species. Their quest takes them to exotic locations like their parents' compost piles and the soils around Bucknell's Carnegie Building. Their quarry is phage, a type of virus that infects only bacteria.

A one-year course sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Phage Hunters allows students to "identify an organism that is completely novel, never seen by anyone before," says Stowe, who co-teaches the course with Associate Professor of Biology Marie Pizzorno.

After isolating new phage in the fall semester, the class spends the spring learning more about the species. Under the mentorship of Stowe and Pizzorno, students sequence the entire genome of a phage, propose what each gene might do and research which other organisms share some of the same genes.

"We report results to GenBank, a national database of genetic information used by researchers around the globe," she says. "The students will come out with more advanced skills that typically they would not get until later in their college career."

Stowe involves students in her own scholarly research, which focuses on how light regulates gene expression in cyanobacteria, the photosynthetic bacteria once known as blue-green algae. "These microbes are an excellent model for understanding photosynthesis in plants, thanks to their evolutionary connection," she says. "The proteins and processes used in photosynthesis by plants and cyanobacteria are very similar, quite possibly because chloroplasts and cyanobacteria share a common ancestor."

Lately, Stowe has expanded her work to look at photosynthetic organisms and their metabolisms in the Susquehanna River and two local reservoirs. "In a lake, the spectrum of light available changes with depth. Red light is absorbed by water, so at the surface you have all wavelengths available. As you go deeper the red light gets filtered out and green light becomes more prevalent." The change in light availability alters the composition of the microbial community and the genes they express.

Stowe is developing several projects to gain a molecular look at these microbial communities using next-generation sequencing techniques. "Through these projects," she says, "students will have access to data that generally isn't available to undergraduates."

Posted Sept. 20, 2011

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