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The Blue & Gray Press | February 21, 2018

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Student studies virus

Student studies virus

By Julianna Truslow

UMW was one of the first schools in the nation accepted to a program sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The two-year program is called the Science Education Alliance and is offered as the introductory biology class Phage Hunters. Its goal is to ignite passion into students from all disciplines by having them research phage, a bacterial virus, and make scientific breakthroughs, according to the institution’s website.

Senior Thien Phan is a part of the program, and is working with professor Lynn Lewis studying the virus Mycobacterium tuberculosis, also known as tuberculosis.
Because tuberculosis is a dangerous pathogen and has a doubling time of 24 hours in a laboratory setting, Phan is instead experimenting with virus Mycobacterium smegmatis, which has a doubling time of 20 minutes in the same setting.

“M. smegmatis comes from the same bacterial family and therefore could have similar characteristics,” said Phan.

So far Phan has made significant progress with the research.

He has been “isolating and enriching” the virus in order to decipher which of its genes are similar to genes in other known species.

“The whole reason [for] studying viruses is that viruses inject their DNA or RNA into a host genome, thus resulting in many diseases like HIV, Herpes, and TB.  So the idea is to manipulate the genome of the virus, then use it as a treatment to correct the damaged genes within our genome to cure disease,” said Phan.

He has been doing this by breaking down the capsid of the virus, which contains its DNA.  He uses enzymes to cut the DNA and compares the substitute virus DNA to tuberculosis DNA to determine which genes are the same.

By mapping the genome of the substitute virus, Phan said he is contributing to the knowledge of known genes of all species.

After graduation, Phan plans to attend graduate school to study bioinformatics or public health.

Phan is not the only UMW student conducting research, though. In the biology department, 28 students are participating in projects under faculty supervision, 21 students are doing individual study research projects and seven students are assisting professors with their research projects.