SEA-PHAGES Gets $3.25 Million to Continue, Grow Virus-Hunting Course

Issue Date: 
October 20, 2014

The University of Pittsburgh has received a $3.25 million, five-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to continue the SEA-PHAGES program, a lab-based biology course providing research experience for freshman undergraduate students. 

SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) was formalized in 2008 at Pitt and then spun out to a dozen institutions of higher learning. It now is being taught to freshmen at more than 80 colleges and universities around the country.

(“Phage” is short for “bacteriophage”—a type of virus that infects bacteria and is greater in number than all other creatures on Earth combined.)

Graham Hatfull, the University’s Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology as well as an HHMI professor, helped to create the course and continues to lead the charge to expand and develop SEA-PHAGES nationwide. 

“This money is to foster the development and growth of the program,” Hatfull says. “While it doesn’t change things programmatically, it funds leadership and administrative positions, and teaching positions, which are needed to achieve our goal of reaching 5,000 students each year through SEA-PHAGES.” 

The program benefits about 2,000 students per year at Pitt and other participating institutions. Hatfull says growth will be achieved by adding more SEA-PHAGES classes   at Pitt and participating institutions—as well as recruiting new institutions to adopt the phage-hunting program. 

HHMI reports that nearly 40 percent of the 3 million students who enter college annually intend to study science or engineering, but 60 percent of that cohort fail to earn their degree in a science or engineering field. Hatfull is optimistic that the HHMI funding will help reverse this national trend.

“Research indicates that it is effective to get students involved in lab work,” he says. “If we can get to students in their freshman year and get them invested in research, that will promote retention in the sciences. The earlier we get them, the bigger the impact it will have.”

SEA-PHAGES students have found more than 4,000 new bacteriophages (all catalogued in Pitt’s Mycobacteriophage Database, and have been listed as coauthors on more than 10 scientific journal articles.