UMM genomics course allows students to study phage DNA

Posted Feb. 18, 2011, at 12:12 a.m.

MACHIAS — First-year students at the University of Maine at Machias soon will have the opportunity to search for undiscovered organisms in the dirt, thanks to an innovative genomics course funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

UMM has been selected to participate in the prestigious National Genomics Research Initiative, a yearlong course that enables students to conduct genomic research on soil-dwelling bacterial viruses called phages. The initiative is part of the Science Education Alliance, a national program of HHMI that seeks to develop resources for undergraduate science educators to present innovative courses and programs.

In the first semester, the students will isolate phages from locally collected soil. Given the diversity of phages, each one is almost certain to be unique, and the students will get to name their newly identified life form. They spend the rest of the term purifying and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA.

Between semesters, the complete genome of their phage will be sequenced at one of several research centers across the country. In the second half of the course, the students receive digital files containing their phage’s DNA sequence. The students then learn to use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes.

UMM is among just 26 schools, chosen through a competitive application process, joining the Science Education Alliance this year as either full or associate members. The University of Maine, University of Maine at Fort Kent, and Southern Maine Community College, also were selected as associate members in this year’s class.

As an associate member, UMM will receive partial funding for the initiative from HHMI and access to online resources. For full members, the project is fully funded by HHMI.

The National Genomics Research Initiative is the alliance’s first program, and HHMI has committed $4 million to the course. With the addition of this year’s group of colleges and universities, the course will be taught in 29 states and Puerto Rico.

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