The Phage Hunters Advancing Research and Education (PHIRE) program offers opportunities for undergraduate and high school students to engage in authentic scientific research through bacteriophage discovery and genomics at the University of Pittsburgh. The PHIRE program was established in 2002 with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Professors program and continues as a component within the Hatfull Lab leadership of the SEA-PHAGES program.
Bacteriophage discovery and genomics provides a powerful platform for introducing students to an authentic research experience. Students use a bacterial host such as Mycobacterium smegmatis mc(2)155 to isolate phages from the environment using a simple plaque assay. Because phages are highly diverse genetically, the prospects that any newly isolated phage presents a new genomic type or novel genes is considerable, and students name the new phages they have isolated. However, this novelty is not apparent until the genomes are sequenced, annotated, and comparatively analyzed.
The phage discovery and genomics platform takes advantage of a parallel project structure built around a common progression with common techniques, with individuality contributed by different students isolating their own phages. The platform thus incorporates a strong sense of project ownership and encourages peer mentoring systems.