The Breakwell Lab

BacteriophageBacteriophage are viruses that infect and kill bacteria and, since they only infect specific types of bacteria, they are unable to harm humans, plants, animals, insects, or the environment.  Using phages to control pathogenic bacteria has historical precedence, but has recently received increased attention in the United States.  The process includes spraying or ingesting cocktails of phages and then allowing time for incubation, phage amplification and subsequent lysis of bacteria to reduceor eliminate the bacterial population.  Using phages to treat bacterial diseases, therefore, is a viable alternative to antibiotics or heavy metals.  The need for an alternative form of bacterial control is imperative as bacterial resistance to antibiotics has increased, and as farmers attempt to decrease the use of antibiotics in agriculture while still maintaining healthy, productive crops and animals.

This avenue of research was opened to us in 2009 when we began working with the Science Education Alliance at Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  As part of this program, we capture, tame, dissect phage isolated from soil and other environmental samples.  Following DNA isolation and sequencing, we analyze the phage genomes, examine, and share the information with others in the alliance and the public at large.  Since 2009 we have isolated over 70 bacteriophages that infect a variety of hosts.  To date we have contributed 7 genomes to NCBI’s GenBank and the list is growing rapidly.  Our analysis has led to more than 15 student presentations at regional meetings of the American Society for Microbiology and several manuscripts are being prepared for publication.

The specific objective that we have is to construct and characterize phage cocktails that can be used to treat disease in plants and animals. We do this by evaluating the lytic activity of the isolated phages, determining their effectiveness in treating bacteria isolated from the field, checking their stability for storage, and determining their unique genetic properties.

In addition to phage research, I am also actively involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning.  My students and I examine the implementation of active learning strategies in introductory microbiology courses.