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Meramec Students Discover New Viruses

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Meramec biology studentsThe year 2020 no doubt will go down in history as the Year of the Virus. It was the year that the general public became more versed in the makeup of viruses, how they spread and how you can avoid getting them – or not. 

It was also the year that St. Louis Community College-Meramec students discovered 15 new, never-before-seen viruses. 

These students were all enrolled in freshman-level biology courses that participate in the SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) program. This program aims to increase interest and retention in the biological sciences by engaging students in research that’s typically only available at large research universities. 

More than 100 colleges and universities across the nation participate in the SEA-PHAGES program. Yet, STLCC is one of only a handful of community colleges currently participating. 

Students begin by digging in the soil to find new viruses. They then progress through a variety of microbiology techniques, ending with complex genome annotation and bioinformatic analyses. Students then have the opportunity to name a new organism, present their findings at a national meeting, called the SEA Symposium, and co-author a scientific paper. 

Bob Harms, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences at Meramec, teaches the Principles of Biology classes that include the SEA-PHAGES program. 

Virus under the microscope“As an instructor, it's critical to encourage student engagement,” he said. “This is especially important during the pandemic and the world of distance learning when both students and instructors may feel isolated. Having small labs meeting on campus has kept students in-touch with their learning experience. The SEA-PHAGES project also gives students ownership of their own project as they learn biology.” 

The pandemic may not have cancelled biology labs on campus, but it has put a damper on this year’s SEA Symposium, which will be presented virtually. In the past, several STLCC students have travelled to the symposium to present their research. Students have not yet decided if they will attend this year’s event, scheduled for April 9-11. 

STLCC students have so far discovered 56 viruses, photographed many of them under an electron microscope, and determined the complete DNA sequences for nine of them. 

Learn more about the viruses discovered by the STLCC students.  

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