Two and a Half Hours in the Life of a Phage Hunter

By Sophia Chen

Walking into class every day is a surprise. I never know what to expect when I walk in, often just resorting to wondering what strange thing has grown on my plates today. This thought often runs on replay in my head as I hang up my backpack and grab a pair of gloves, never stopping even when I go back to my area to put on my lab coat and disinfect my station. After having dragged out the moment long enough, I usually go to grab my plates – a process that involves a lot of picking up other people’s random plates and being convinced mine are not there before finally finding them (one time I actually thought my plates had been lost, only to find that they had been placed to the side in a place I had never thought to look). Taking my stack of plates back to the lab desk, I peel off the neon green tape keeping them together and hold the first one up to the light, hoping for good results.

So far, I have been very lucky. Most times my initial apprehension has turned to delight as I spot my precious phages growing on a lawn of otherwise spotless, contamination-free M. smegmatis. Other times, frustration reigns supreme when I see the evil yellow taint of invading bacteria crawling across the plate. At these moments I curse the phage gods and head back to waste more plates and top agar, resigning myself to starting all over again. These experiences accurately describe the roller coaster of emotions that is phage hunting. In two and a half hours of phage lab, I go through more emotions than in five hours of lecture, a fresh change of pace and exactly why I like phage hunting so much.

These emotions appeared even before the first day of class, when I received the email about collecting dirt samples. My first reaction was (among many others) confusion and not a little bit of apprehension. As I read over the instructions, I seriously reconsidered my class choices, wondering what in the world I had signed up for. Deciding to take a leap of faith, I went to a remote corner of campus to collect my sample, hoping that no one would remark upon the strange girl digging a hole in the ground with her plastic spoon. But there was no need to have worried at all because by the end class the next day, all my doubts had disappeared. After about 30 minutes of introduction that first day, we jumped straight into lab and have never looked back since.

That first class involved us direct plating our soil samples (a fail) and creating our enrichment culture. From there, we plated our phages and started the long process of isolation. It took a while but after about five billion rounds of streaking and ten billion wasted plates, I finally isolated my chosen strain of phage. Creating omy MTL next was a little trickier (I had some problems with contamination) but eventually even that came through and soon I will have my HTL.

Throughout phage lab I have been learning so much. I have gone from wondering how to do aseptic techniques with only two hands, to accepting my limitations and being tolerably good at it (although I still wish for more than two hands). I have gone from almost burning myself multiple times on the invisible Bunsen burner flame each class, to now only having a couple of close calls each week. And I have gone from confused lab notebook writer, to only semi-confused lab notebook writer, a change that required a lot of scribbles and resulted in quite a messy-looking notebook. I can’t wait until the Phage Olympics and the sequencing of phage genes begin but until then, may the odds be ever in your (phage’s) favor!

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