New Course in Virus Hunting

SDSU College of Sciences

Students can win a semester’s tuition with their presentation on viral discovery and metagenomics.

“Viral discovery is critical for understanding how viruses evolved inside of us and in other ecosystems, and what they mean for human and ecosystem health.” A few years ago, San Diego State University computer scientist Rob Edwards made headlines when he used a new computational technique to discover a previously unknown virus that lives in the guts of more than three-quarters of the world population. Beginning this semester, SDSU students will have that same chance in a new course that teaches viral discovery techniques. And as a bonus, they will also compete to win a semester’s tuition financed by the professional services firm Deloitte Consulting.In 2014, Edwards and colleagues devised computer software known as “cross assembly” that sorts through the DNA and RNA present in a sample, separates out the known microbes, and locates the genetic signatures of a virus. Using this, they discovered crAssphage, a type of virus known as a bacteriophage, which reproduces inside bacteria. It’s unclear what crAssphage does physiologically, but by analyzing samples from around the world, Edwards discovered that more than 75 percent of people have it.Up to 48 undergraduate students enrolled in the newly created Biology 499: Microbial Metagenomics Discovery Challenge course will learn how to use the cross assembly program, then apply those skills by hunting for new viruses—as well as looking for the genetic hallmarks of antibiotic resistance—in real datasets of DNA. The independent study course doesn’t have any prerequisites, Edwards said, but a background in biological sciences or computer science would be helpful.At the end of the semester, students will create a 3-5 minute video using the university’s Learning Glass technology to explain the tools they’ve learned, the importance of viral discovery and antibiotic resistance, and their discoveries. A committee …

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