By Augusto Ramirez
Wait… That can’t be right… Phage hunters don’t eat phages. Right?
Then what is this feast?
First semester, a group of inexperienced soon-to-be phage hunters gathered in a lab. Here I stood with my fellow classmates, following protocol after protocol, training my empirical skills yet oblivious to why we “capture,” “tame,” and isolate these little guys. Of course I was given a complementary manual to answer my questions, however, although dense in instruction, it only briefly explained purpose. “Why is this? Why is that?” I would constantly ask the instructors or teaching assistants when I had the chance. The answers all made sense; the general idea was there, my classmates and I obviously understood what we were doing and why, but did we really? I promise I am not willfully trying to sound either confusing or consciously attempting to appear profound. What I am saying is that although we, the phage hunters, knew what we were doing (isolating a phage for DNA sequencing) and understood the gist as to why we did it (to voluntarily contribute to the scientific community), we had not grasped the idea of what came after the hunt and why it was important.
Our ancestors, I’m speaking prehistoric Paleolithic, had a reason to hunt and gather. It was quite simple, to eat. That way, our cavemen friends could survive as a species and live long enough to evolve to what we are now. Everything we do derives from this instinct to hunt. The need to survive and prosper is naturally in our genomic composition. In a way, this applies to phage hunting, where hunting is subconsciously used as an analogy… albeit, I suppose the analogy is explicitly stated in the name for this but not explained. We hunt for phages, capture them, tame them, and isolate them; the same way a hunter would “capture” an animal to eat, a farmer would “tame” to sell and eat, and a typical human being today would go do groceries and “isolate” the food they need to eat from unnecessary products. The need to eat is the need to survive. However, when it comes to phage hunting, we don’t eat the phages; instead, we send their genetic material to a DNA sequencing facility. So where is our need to survive/eat in this scenario? Are we just hunting phages for the fun of it? Definitely not. Did I just spend this whole time writing about a theory that isn’t held constant for all things, especially not in phage hunting (which is the purpose of this post)? I hope not.
So here is where it all comes together. After all, hunting is nothing but an analogy to represent the utter instinct to survive. Think, survival of the fittest, or perhaps natural selection (a little Darwin might ring a bell). So the significance of a subject can be associated to how it is applied towards our survival. Of course, as phage hunters, we aren’t curing cancer or making breakthrough discoveries in lab everyday. However, there is great insight to be earned in the areas of genetics, epidemiology, and therapeutics from bacteriophage research. That is where the hunting analogy comes into play; because as a species we want to survive but survival is not just about having a plate to eat everyday anymore, it also is about fighting deadly pathogens and getting closer to a better and stronger society; perhaps even immortality. In short, our need to survive as a species currently depends on being fed enough significant information. With phage hunting we will be annotating the genetic information of a phage to help contribute to a database that will perhaps be used in the future to discover “the next big thing.”
NOTE: I will now wrap up, because I just realized how I could talk about this topic for so much longer. There is actually so much more I wanted to mention but this post is very long already! Sorry!
Basically, the feast is all the genetic information we are lucky enough to annotate. Little do we know that one day our information might become a fundamental part of an era-changing breakthrough.