- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

NEW ALBANY, Ind. (AP) - Drew Gukeisen pulled something out of the Ohio River no one else has ever seen, except his discovery isn’t a fish tale.

Instead, his catch could go on to help a field of research find new ways to combat bacterial infections.

The biology student at Indiana University Southeast worked alongside his professor, Pamela Connerly, to search for and learn more about bacteriophages - very specific viruses that only attack very specific bacteria.

“With antibiotics and resistance becoming a problem. normal bacteria are becoming resistant to our treatments,” Gukeisen said. “(But) these phages can be used to just infect those specific bacteria while leaving the remaining of the microflora in the body intact.”

Gukeisen said he chose the Ohio River because moving water presents so many opportunities to find microorganisms. He took the water sample through a series of processes to cultivate the bacteria Connerly was working with, Caulobacter crescentus. When they sent their samples off for transmission electron microscopy - a method of imaging such small life - at IU’s Electron Microscopy Center, they got an image back of the new phage, OHR.

“Getting the imaging was a big part for me because I’m sort of a visual type of learner,” Gukeisen said. “Seeing the image of it made me realize there are millions of these in the sample that I had.”

There it was, about 300 times smaller than the width of a human hair, but it still comes in larger than some of the bigger known phages, Gukeisen said. It wasn’t shaped like the viruses seen in high school biology textbooks, with a rod-like central piece connecting a diamond-shaped head and a series of legs. Instead, it had an oblong head propelled by a tail.

He said its size and shape stood out, and that’s one way he knew they had something different.

“When I first started, I was expecting it to look like a typical T4 virus, the head-tail configuration. But then I saw it kind of had an elongated spheroid head and a tail structure, and it was kind of unique, so I started looking in that direction,” Gukeisen said.

They named it OHR, after the Ohio River. It only attacks Caulobacter crescentus, and neither the phage nor the bacterium infects humans. But Connerly said there are lots of other bacteriophages that could help with human infections.

Because of that, she said the virus Gukeisen discovered isn’t anything anyone else has to worry about catching.

“These viruses have to attach to the bacteria to get in, in order to take over the bacterium and cause it to die,” Connerly said. “The surface of a bacterial cell is very different from the surface of a eukaryotic cell, like our cells. There’s no other cell type it could change to infect and it can only infect a limited set of bacteria.”

Because of that, she said there’s potential for using these viruses in something called phage therapy. If phages attack bacteria that are detrimental to humans, they can develop new therapies to kill off infection without affecting the beneficial bacteria.

Gukeisen said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tried to develop topical creams with phages to help prevent burn victims from getting infected on their burns.

The biggest hurdle is convincing people that these aren’t viruses in the sense they’re used to hearing about.

“One of the big things people have a stigma with is having viruses on oneself,” Gukeisen said. “That’s an area where we need to have better communication from the scientific community and the public.”

The discovery of OHR is just the first step. Connerly said next, they’re going to see if there’s anything in OHR’s DNA that can compare to known phages.

“Looking at the bigger goal, we’re kind of in progress right now,” Connerly said. “We’ve got the virus isolated, we started to characterize what it looks like and what Drew’s trying to do today is to isolate the genome so we can sequence it and compare it to other genomes.”

She said IU Bloomington’s researchers would be interested to see if OHR has any similarities to anything they’ve discovered.

“One of the labs we collaborate with at IU Bloomington is really interested in some of the surface structures on that bacteria and how they’re made,” Connerly said. “They’re using some of our phage isolates to help them understand those surface structures better, which could have similarities to bacterial surface structures we would want to target with a phage product.”

Gukeisen, though he lives in Jeffersonville, is a native of Lexington, Kentucky. He said he chose to attend IU Southeast partially because of the smaller class sizes.

His interest in science began when he thought he wanted to cover the field though journalism. But he said he wasn’t so great at taking pictures or writing news stories, so he decided to do the hard part and actually get into the science instead.

While getting into his undergraduate work, he got a little experience in laboratories by volunteering at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville. He said that was pretty basic, cleaning out materials and such, but it wasn’t enough when he started looking for practical experience outside of class.

He said he applied to larger companies and even the CDC for internships, but they all rejected him because of his lack of lab experience. He started asking about how to get into a lab for more detailed work and was directed to Connerly.

Connerly said she has students look for phages because there’s so much diversity in them.

“Basically, any phage we find is going to be a new phage,” Connerly said. “The diversity and sheer number of bacteria that are out there and the diversity of phages that are out there (make this great for undergraduate researchers).”

Gukeisen said when he was considering biology as a major, he got interested in microbiology because he’d heard 70 percent of the discoveries to be made in biology were in microbiology. Before he’s finished his undergraduate degree - which he expects to receive in May - he’s made one of those discoveries.

After that, he said he plans to either attend medical school or graduate school.

Connery said that practical experience he’s gotten so far in the lab will help him achieve that.

“As a biology department, we have a lot of students who go on to graduate school and medical school,” Connerly said. “Part of it is being able to do hands-on research and interact with faculty.”

She said whether a student majors in the sciences or takes a course for their prerequisites, learning the process helps develop a deeper understanding of the field, aside from the headlines.

“I think there’s a big difference between doing science and just reading about it,” Connerly said. “To a lot of students, science appears to them as a bunch of facts that are in a book that are already known.

“The more we can have everyone learn about the process of science and how careful you have to be to have a good experiment. and understand what goes into that, the better you understand the process of science and get interested in it.”

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Source: News and Tribune, http://bit.ly/1ZtVp6z

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Information from: News and Tribune, Jeffersonville, Ind., http://www.newsandtribune.com

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