By Clay Andrews
I think we can all agree that the title “Project Lab: Phage Hunting” is at least moderately attention grabbing. After glazing over the first few pages of art and art history courses on ISIS, I remember pretty much reflexively clicking on the title as soon as I read it. I spent most of high school biology drawing phages in the margins of my notes, and I really liked the idea of a hands-on, research-based course, so when the time came, I enrolled.
Over the past month and a half, I’ve become extremely emotionally invested in my phage, and I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for the process of scientific investigation and discovery. But at the same time, there has been one single doubt floating around in the back of my mind. It won’t leave me alone, and I think it’s about time I put it out there to hopefully get it out of my head. So here it goes: does this class live up to its name?
Well it is a lab, and we are focused on a single project, which happens to be the isolation and characterization of a novel phage. But are we really hunting? This question has been bothering me a lot, but I think I finally have enough confidence (and evidence) to support this claim. I’m going to set up an analogy to get my point across, so either take a moment to prepare yourself emotionally or go buy yourself a hat and hold onto it.
Alright. Imagine there’s a zombie apocalypse and somehow you and a small group of your closest friends manage to survive in the woods. Imagine then that all of the zombies die in a freak meteor shower so they’re no longer a problem, but at the same time you need to find food because otherwise you and your friends will starve to death. You happen to be the leader of the group of survivors, and everyone’s looking to you for answers. What do you do?
Your first thought is probably to go out and hunt for food. But that takes a lot of effort, and you’ll have to do it every day. Imagine instead that you’re a particularly industrious zombie-apocalypse-survivor, so instead of assembling a hunting party every day, you decide to keep a stock of food animals on hand and essentially start up an animal farm.
To accomplish this, the first thing you need do is go out on a hunt. This is completely unavoidable; in order to build up your farm, first and foremost you need to get some animals. So you set a trap. Maybe you dig a ditch in the ground and cover it with leaves, hoping a wild boar will stumble in for you to capture. Or maybe you set up one of those rope traps that scoops things up from below when they trip a wire. Either way, setting a trap is analogous to phage hunters finding and directly plating soil samples. Since the trap isn’t baited, it is almost destined to fail. Enrichment, then, is like baiting the trap to increase the chances that something useful will stumble into it. The agar plates themselves are a lot like the traps, upon which the students eagerly look for the presence of phage.
But once you—the survivalist expert and zombie-apocalypse survivor—have looked into your trap to see if you’ve caught anything, you need to separate the contents of your rope sack or ditch into stuff you want and stuff you don’t want. You probably want that wild boar, but you might want to pass on the squirrels and chipmunks and assorted insects and leaves. This is similar to streaking: sorting through the original plates—the trap—to isolate a single useful phage.
Your next step is to get the animals you captured to mate with each other—if possible—to produce more and more food for you and your co-survivors, which is analogous to the phage hunters flooding plates with phage buffer and making their MTLs and HTLs. So now you—the survivalist, hunter, and apocalypse survivor—have produced plenty of food for your group, just as the phage hunters have created large stocks of phage with potential uses for research and medicine.
Is it too much to say that the scientist is the modern extension of the primitive human hunter or early farmer-rancher? Probably. But is the title appropriate for the course? Definitely. I mean, the manual is divided into sections like “capture” and “tame” for a reason.