Phages are viruses of bacteria, they are nature’s antibiotics, and students work to isolate phage each year on our campus in the AMSR program. Elif K. (’13) wanted to focus her phage hunting on medically-relevant bacterium and, after a few conversations, she decided on Legionella, the causative agent of Legionnaire’s Disease. We obtained an avirulent Legionella strain from Dr. Sunny Shin (University of Pennsylvania) and Elif went to work. Interestingly, this bacterial strain was genetically derived from the original Philadelphia organism that caused the historic major outbreak in 1976.
Elif worked most of last year developing the recipes and protocols for Legionella cultivation and virus isolation. After screening nearly 50 environmental samples and months of negative results, she triumphed. Her patient tenacity paid off and she is now in the process of characterizing the Blackrock virus of Legionella. The name Blackrock, she says, is a dual tribute to the exposed schist mountain ledge that is behind Berkshire School and the charcoal agar plates used for Legionella cultivation. The bacteria gives an off-white color to the black plates (see below) and, when infected, tiny holes in the off-white “lawns” are observed. After submitting this work to INTEL this fall, she will prepare her results for publication in a peer-reviewed virology journal. As this may be the first stable virus reported for Legionella, the phage and its use in medical applications or treatments that prevent Legionella growth may also be patentable. Congrats to Elif!