Featured faculty

Paul E. Richardson, PhD, Coastal Carolina University

PROJECT TITLE: The viruses that silently live among us; understanding bacteriophage in the environment and human population in Horry and Georgetown counties

Bacteriophages, also referred to as phages, are a class of viruses that only infect bacteria. It is estimated that they are most abundant living entity on this planet with estimates of their number between 1030 to 1032 viruses. Every location on the planet that contains bacteria contains bacteriophages. Bacteriophages are critical to the control of bacterial populations and maintaining a diverse bacteria ecosystem. To understand the dynamics of a bacterial system, detailed understanding of phages must also be accounted for. Studies have shown that bacteria and phages have a co-evolutionary relationship, an arms race, as one evolves so does the other. It is important that we understand the role that bacteriophages play in our environment. The health of an ecosystem is often tied to the viral population that it supports. That includes our waterways and human populations. Previous studies done by the Richardson lab have looked into the coastal estuaries of the surrounding counties and within the student population for the presence of these bacteriophages. These results indicate that they are everywhere; being found both in the human population and in the waterways of the coastal estuaries.

Over 33% of the student population at Coastal Carolina University has bacteriophages located on their face based on the polymerase chain reaction detection techniques developed in the Richardson lab. Environmental testing of the waterways had a similar result where almost every environmental sample tested near university housing has been positive for bacteriophages at some point in time. While Richardson et. al can detect these viruses, no technique has been developed to characterize each strain of virus and compare them to each other. There is no understanding if the viruses found in the university human population is similar to that found in the surrounding waterways near campus. There is no information if the viruses are being passed between the environment to the human population or vice versa. This grant is focused on addressing the questions below:

  1. Using the viral genomic DNA, can a fingerprint be created that can characterize each strain of bacteriophage collected?
  2. Using the new technique, can the strains of bacteriophage be compared to show population difference within the Coastal Carolina University community?
  3. Can the “spread” of the viruses be better characterized between the environment and human population?

Funds from SC INBRE allowed us to train a high school teacher in electrophoresis and then use that experience to help train 23 other high school teachers. The Electrophoresis Workshop for high school teachers empowers the biomedical research community through training both students and teachers.

March 23, 2018