Student Bit by Learning Bug Assists Virus Research

Article excerpt

As a ninth-grader at Greater Latrobe Junior High School in 2002, Andrew Hryckowian's passion for biology caught the eye of his biology teacher Debbie Jacobs-Sera.

At the time, Graham F. Hatfull, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh Biological Sciences Department, was conducting a student lab at the school on identifying bacteriophages, or viruses that infect bacteria.

"I showed particular interest in the program, and she (Jacobs- Sera) recommended me for more work," said Hryckowian, 19, now a sophomore pharmacy and microbiology double major at Pitt.

Hryckowian's subsequent research helped lead to a groundbreaking paper on the genetic sequences of bacteriophages, the most prevalent life-form on earth, and their ability to combat harmful bacterial diseases, including botulism and cholera.

The piece, "Exploring the Mycobacteriophage Metaproteome: Phage Genomics as an Educational Platform," is published in the current issue of the national journal Public Library of Science Genetics.

Hryckowian's work involved isolating a virus found in soil he recovered on the university's campus that infected and propagated in a host lawn of bacteria called mycobacterium smegmatis.

The host is a fast-growing, nonpathogenic sister bacteria of mycobacterium, which causes tuberculosis, Hryckowian said. He named the virus he discovered "Catera" after a friend's dog.

Jacobs-Sera, now coordinator of Pitt's Phage Hunter program, said Hryckowian has thrived throughout his participation.

"We were looking for students to do independent scientific research, and when Andrew got the opportunity, he just flourished," Jacobs-Sera said.

Hryckowian teamed up with high school students and teachers, Pitt undergrads and grad students, and researchers from Pitt, University of Montana, Cornell University, Stanford University, Williams College and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, Jacobs- Sera said. …