There Are Plenty of Other Phages in Baltimore

“There are plenty of other fish in the sea,” applies to many situations, sharing optimism with someone feeling lost and hopeless. We know it to be true: there have to be other fish out there, since you have a whole sea at your disposal. I wish someone had told me this after my first failed dirt sample. Encouraging words like, “there are plenty of other phages in Baltimore,” would have eased my initial fears of perpetual phageless-ness. There had to be other phages, since I had the whole city of Baltimore (and technically the whole world) at my disposal.

My dirt sample, which I excitedly collected on the first day of classes, was taken from the garden behind the Center for Social Concern. I immediately started the direct isolation procedure, trying to extract coveted bacteriophages from the dirt. After plating my liquid from direct isolation… Nothing. No observable plaques to show that I had any phage concentration. How? In a world with a bacteriophage population of 10^31, how did I manage to find the one patch of dirt that had nothing?

I still don’t know. So many different things could have gone wrong with that one dirt sample, but instead of sitting around and hoping for plaques to magically appear, I went out and got another one. This time, I searched close to my second home, the Undergraduate Teaching Labs, and took a sample from right outside the door I walk in every Monday and Wednesday afternoon.

This was my second sample, and it slowly but surely turned into a success. Nothing compares to the feeling of seeing your first plaque, knowing that you found this phage, your phage, and continuing to isolating it. 1 Enriched Isolation, 5 serial dilutions, 12 streaks, and what seemed like a million plates later* – I had isolated my bacteriophage. Sometimes, when you’re searching for something, it’ll be right in front of you and you won’t even know it. I was looking for bacteriophages, and I found mine steps from the building where I started my search.

After isolation came visualization. We had spent most of the semester talking about phages, working with phages, praying for phages – but I had never seen one up close. Sure, there were intriguing pictures from phage-related research online, but it wasn’t the same. Viewing the electron microscopic image of my phage was surreal. I had gotten just what I wanted: my very own bacteriophage.

em-1-jpg

The EM image of my wonderful phage

I registered for Phage Hunting over the summer, thinking I would go to lab twice a week, follow a few procedures, and continue on with my day unaffected. I was wrong. Phage Hunting is a class of discovery, independence, and genuine enjoyment. I look forward to my two labs every week, more so than any other class. I walk in and immediately feel like a scientist, not like a student absentmindedly following someone else’s calculated steps. Every new finding yields celebration and excitement, and every failed result offers opportunity to improve and analyze. I believe I am a better scientist, student, and thinker for having taken Phage Hunting. In a world full of bacteriophages, I isolated my own. In a university full of classes, I chose Phage Hunting; I would do it again in a heartbeat.

*Disclaimer: Numbers slightly exaggerated. I only used 999,974 plates.

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