Phage Hunting 101

Phage Hunters Blog Post # 1

By Ashley Elsberry

The first week has certainly been interesting. Before starting this project, I had no idea something like bacteriophages existed, much less that they may be used in a medical setting.  I am still very excited about the things that attracted me to this project in the first place – number one being that we have the opportunity to conduct real research. WE students are collecting samples. WE are following lab procedures and plating phages. WE are writing in our lab books (which are hardbound and say “Laboratory Notebook” in shiny gold). Being able to conduct hands-on research as an undergraduate is the reason I came to Johns Hopkins.

Our first task (well, there was the lab safety stuff, which is important, but much less interesting) was to collect our soil samples. From these we would hopefully isolate a phage. I did a little research on the internet, looking for tips on the best places to look. I took my plastic tubes with orange caps out around campus. I collected the first sample near a tree between walkways leading to various halls. I took the second sample from a wooded area near the back of campus. All the while I was wondering how silly I must look to people passing by. After all, I was kneeling in the wet dirt, scraping at the ground with a plastic knife and putting some in a tube. Perhaps they thought I had a dirt collection in my dorm room, or maybe that I was making lunch. I truly didn’t matter what they thought, though – I had research to conduct.

All of us brought in our soil samples on Friday. No one was eating theirs, I’m glad to report. After all, we’re not supposed to eat in lab – who knows what mad scientist things Dr. Schildbach and Dr. Fisher were cooking up in there earlier. We separated out some sample for enrichment, and the rest for direct plating. This process involved a lot of solutions, mixing, and picture-taking. Who doesn’t want to model in their safety apparel? Powdery gloves, masks, and stylish safety glasses are a well honored fashion statement here.

We ended the day with plates ready for the incubator. We were all hopeful that we would see plaques when we return. From there we can continue isolating and studying the phage. There was some discussion as to what we should name our very own pet phage. Fido or Spot may not be very scientific, though, so we might have to come up with something else.

I am definitely enjoying Project Lab: Phage Hunting. Just the name is enough to inspire visions of Indiana Jones-like adventure. While we may not get to wear such a stylish hat, we do get to work in a laboratory conducting research, which is what I personally hope to do for a living in the future. In this lab, we students are conducting research that may someday, in some small way, contribute to improving the quality of life for people around the world. On that note, we student researchers cannot wait to see the plaques on the plates that will indicate phages are present. After all, we are phage hunters, and we enjoy our job.

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4 Responses to Phage Hunting 101

  1. Beverly Wendland says:

    It’s been a long time since remembering my old ‘mud pie’ days – thanks for the memories!

    I’m wondering if you treated each of your samples separately, and if you’ll report back about which one harbored more bacteriophage? I hope so – I’m curious! Do you have any predictions about which one might have more?

    • Thanks for the comment!

      I did a direct plating with the first sample and an enrichment with the second sample.This first enrichment did not appear successful, so I conducted a second enrichment with the remaining filtered sample. This time it proved successful, as I found plaques on the plates!

      There was a bit of worry, though, when our lab suffered what we’re calling “The Great Contamination” in which many of our plates became contaminated, hiding any plaques that may be present. We all had to do a bit of back tracking after that, and several of us flooded the contaminated plates with phage buffer, filtered, and plated it. I’m happy to say that worked for my plates!

      So right now, I am currently working with turbid plaques from Sample #2, from the wooded area behind Gilman Hall. I have to say, I really enjoy seeing how excited everyone (including myself) gets when we see plaques on our plates!

  2. emilyjanefisher says:

    I’ve never cooked anything in lab, but when my mom was getting her master’s degree she knew people who cooked a Thanksgiving turkey in the lab autoclave. We will not be attempting that this semester!

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