The first time I heard about bacteriophages.

I was in an Advanced Placement Biology class in Morgan Hill California and our teacher, the treasured, Mr. Hemeon (surfer, musician, general biology-aficionado and all-rounder) had encouraged us each to do science fair projects on something we found interesting. My crappy tri-fold cardboard monstrosity was sadly typical of my standard homework effort in those days, a hopeless last minute doodle with cut out construction paper letters proclaiming my interest: Buoyancy! This was a project inspired not by the natural world but by my budding holiday hobby: SCUBA diving. In all likelihood this was actually a sad attempt to alert my crush in that class, Scott Sharper*, that I had a “cool” hobby. I don’t remember if Scott was impressed, but I do remember distinctly that Mr. Hemeon was not. I don’t even remember standing by my poor excuse for a science fair project but I do remember my class-mate’s Bacteriophage poster.

ImageBacteriophage image credit.

What was this? First off, the large image in the center, that bacteriophage was like something out of Deep Space Nine or The Navigator. This “bacteriophage” was clearly some comedian’s idea of a microbial-jackalope: a cross between a spacecraft and a spider. It was scary looking!

I shook my chemically induced blond curls at the student standing in front of this obvious fiction in total disbelief. What’s more, there was this totally unbelievable monster number just underneath this obvious monstrosity. My classmate proudly informed me that these “phages” were the most abundant entities on the planet and that we were literally covered with these creepy things all the time.

An estimated 10^31 of them on the planet.” He proclaimed.

“How do you even say a number like that?” I muttered, quietly folding up my tribute to buoyancy! and shoving it under a table.

Mr. Hemeon was delighted by my classmate. I think my primary reaction to the whole thing was a stymied disbelief followed by annoyance followed by a lapse into forgetfulness, but this would only last for a short time. I never took microbiology as an undergraduate. Despite this terrible error I was lucky enough to stumble into an undergraduate job in the laboratory of one of the greatest microbiologists of our time, Professor John Roth.**

While a fledgling experimentalist in his laboratory I had the audacity to confess that I had no idea what a “lysogen” was. Luckily for me, John did not throw me out for my ignorance. He had a post-doc in the lab sit with me after lab meeting to explain that bacteriophages could quietly set up shop in the chromosome of a bacterium, rather than undergoing their normal lytic life cycle and building huge numbers of copies of themselves before rupturing the cell. This kindly post-doc explained to me that bacteriophages are ubiquitous in nature and that as microbiologists, we must constantly be vigilant against our strains becoming lysogens. Perhaps it wasn’t then, in that dusty lab meeting room, perhaps it was a bit later, but it wouldn’t be long before I was hooked on microbiology.

You see, microbial life is all around us. It’s like Obi-Wan said:

The microbes are what gives a microbiologist her power. They partake of the energy created by all living things. They surround us and penetrate us. They bind the galaxy together.

Well, it was something like that***.

This next week we will begin the phage hunt in B. Nat. Sci. I am excited. I know these students have all taken my virus lectures in Biology of Cells at Massey so they are better acquainted with our prey than I was in Roth’s Lab. There are so many phages out there in the soil, numbers so high, I still can not possibly say them out loud. Plenty for us to find a few in the next month.

This is really why, after all of the Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who and Red Dwarf:

Science really is better than science fiction…

* Name altered (a bit) to protect the innocent from embarrassing googlisms.

** This is a personal opinion obviously but I am far from alone on this one.

*** Midi-chlorians are obviously microbial. They are mitochondria, or chloroplasts or just bacteria. am I right? Come on! Update: Mitochondrial parasite named after midi-chlorians by an Australian microbiologist.

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About drhhnz

Microbiology, Evolution and Bacteriophages. Lecturer, Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. Massey University. Superhero name: Microbiology Girl. Auckland, New Zealand · microbialevolution.massey.ac.nz Twitter: drhhnz
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