On May 4-6, 2021, scientists from Montana Tech came to work with Baker middle/high school students on phage discovery. Students from Mrs. Boggs’ 7th grade class and Mrs. Rost’s 10th-12th grade classes attended. This was the sixth time that Montana Tech has visited the school since 2015 when Bo Rost discovered the phage Yodasoda. Bo continued to conduct research on the phage for two years and was later accepted into an internship at Montana Tech to continue with phage research. Students who participate in this program are eligible to apply for paid research internships through Montana Tech and MSU-Bozeman. This year, senior Olivia Gunderson was accepted into the program which only selected 30% of the applicants. Olivia was in Mrs. Rost’s science research class and conducted research on bioinformatics of prion molecules this year. She will be in Butte for six weeks this summer conducting research on isolating phages to be used to treat the cold water fish pathogen, Flavobacterium psychrophilum. This pathogen affects hatcheries across Montana and other states and can kill up to 50% of fish hatches when they are under stress. Researchers from Montana Tech are working with the Washoe Park Trout Hatchery in Anaconda to isolate phages to treat the disease.
Since the scientists were unable to visit Baker last spring due to COVID, many of the students had not done the program. During the first day, Dr. Pedulla, a microbiologist and the principal investigator of the project, came to talk with students about phages, which are viruses that infect bacteria, and how they have recently been used to treat patients with extensively drug resistant bacterial infections when there are no other treatment options. She passed out sample tubes to students and instructed them to collect soil and water samples from nature to isolate phages. The following day, Chris Doyle, a professor at Montana Tech and the program coordinator for the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, helped students filter and extract phages from their samples and test them on Mycobacterium smegmatis, a safe soil bacteria that is closely related to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes Tuberculosis. While Tuberculosis caused fewer than 10,000 reported cases in the United States in 2019, approximately 1.4 million people died of the disease in 2019 worldwide. The phages that students discover that infect M. smegmatis could potentially be used in phage therapy to fight Tuberculosis.
During the third day of the visit, Chris Doyle helped students look at their petri dishes of M. smegmatis to find plaques, which are clear spots formed from a phage infection. Then, students tested the spot to determine if there was a phage. If a phage is discovered, it would be a novel phage and would become part of the international phage database, phagesdb.org. The genome could be sequenced and used in treatments for bacterial infections. The plates were taken back to Montana Tech and several are currently being tested for phages.
The PHAGES project, which is an acronym for Phagedigging Helping Acquire Genuine Experiences in Science, is funded by an NIH SEPA grant to promote science education and student interest in science research. Baker is one of six schools currently involved in the program. Mrs. Boggs and Mrs. Rost have partnered together for the next four years in the phage program. Starting in 2020, they will spend one week each summer at a phage academy at Montana Tech with other teachers learning how to implement the phage program in their classrooms. They also have opportunities to conduct novel research projects. Mrs. Rost is currently pursuing a PhD at Texas Tech and has been conducting educational research. This spring, she completed a research study on student learning from the phage program and will be presenting her findings at a virtual NIH conference on May 24 which is usually held annually in Washington, D.C. She will also present her research at the School Science and Mathematics Association meeting with Rayelynn Brandl, the director of the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program.