UWF Biology And Chemistry Crews Team Up To Hunt Phages

May 12, 2015

The University of West Florida has been chosen to pioneer a unique collaboration between its chemistry and biology departments. Let’s start off with an important definition.

Dr Pamela Tanner
Credit University of West Florida

A phage is a virus that preys on and feeds off bacteria. They are found, among other places, in the soil. That brings us to a program called the Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science program. That name just screams for an acronym so we’ll call that the SEA-PHAGES program. And that brings us to UWF, which has been selected as one of this year’s participants.

Dr. Pamela Tanner is a lecturer in the Chemistry Department at UWF. She says including chemistry in the project is unique to the university. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute began the program back in 2008, and since then about 5000 students  in 73 universities have participated. This year, 47 school applied to be a part of the project and 17 were ultimately chosen, including UWF. The difference is West Florida is the only university in the history of the program to include the chemistry department.

Dr. Tanner and Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Hui-Min Chung will be attending a workshop in June to learn the teaching techniques used in the program. The biology part of the curriculum is pretty much set, but Tanner says the chemistry portion will be developed at UWF. "We're going to be learning on the fly."

In the early part of the 20th century, phages were used to combat bacterial infections…but the discovery and wide spread use of antibiotics ended that practice in most of the world. Phages are now being investigated as a possible way to treat food to prevent contamination such as listeria or botulism. Students in the SEA-PHAGE Program will be looking for phages to study in the soil.

In the UWF program, the chemistry will support the biology. And the students will be an important part of the project. They will be conducting active research in the field and will be listed as authors in the final published reports. The SEA-PHAGES Program is set to begin at the University of West Florida this fall.