The scientific journal eLife published a paper on viruses last month— specifically, the genetics of bacteriophages: viruses that infect, and replicate within, bacteria. By sequencing the genomes of individual bacteriophages, or phages, the authors were able to glean information about the genetic makeup of the viruses more broadly.
This particular study, however, is noteworthy beyond its scientific contributions because it was authored by no less than 2,863 people. This puts the study in league, amount-of-author-wise, with the Higgs boson discovery paper (about 6,000 authors) and the report on the first completed human genome sequence (more than 2,800 authors).
In this case (unlike with the Higgs Boson and human genome papers) the bulk of the authors listed are undergraduate students, participating in something called the Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science, or SEA-PHAGES, program.
They also get to name their own phages, which means new ones have names like “HelgaHufflepuf,” “Romney2012,” “PhatCats2014,” and “ProfessorX.”
Some bacteriophages from the phages database. Screengrab via phagesdb.org.
Specifically, the researchers looked at the genetics of mycobacteriophages (mycobacteria causes diseases like tuberculosis). According to a press release:
“…The authors show that phages do not form discrete populations as previously suggested but are rampantly exchanging genes with each other to generate a broad spectrum of genetic diversity, albeit with some types being a lot more prevalent than others.”
The new information is helping to answer the broader question of, as corresponding author Graham Hatfull, of the University of Pittsburgh, told Fusion in a phone interview: “What the heck are they?” But how, exactly, does one paper come to have so many authors?
SEA-PHAGES, run by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and Hatfull's team group at the University of Pittsburgh, is a two-semester-long experience. During the fall semester, students take soil samples, find and isolate phages, then isolate the phage DNA and send the genomes in for sequencing. In the spring semester, they analyze the genomes. Right now, about 95 schools participate in the program.
According to Hatfull, there are a number of advantages to having so many people contributing to the study. “It’s not just manpower. Because they are geographically dispersed, it means we’re getting [samples] from across the U.S.”
Bacteriophage collection, mapped out. Mini, week-long versions of the SEA-PHAGES program are run internationally, so samples from abroad can be included. Image via eLife.
And because there’s such a massive population of phages to be examined, the more people are looking the better. “The diversity of the population is sufficiently high that every student gets to isolate a new bacteriophage that’s not been previously seen, or previously described.”
Naturally, this is exciting to students. “It’s an amazing platform for introducing freshmen students into doing authentic scientific research.”
The flip-side of encouraging 18- and 19-year-old non-scientists to contribute to research is that the overseeing professors have to run an especially tight ship. “The program is administered jointly by HMMI, in collaboration with people in my group [at the University of Pittsburgh] and also at James Madison University. As the program has grown we’ve always been cognizant of the need to have good quality control," said Hatfull. Specifically, he added, the program leaders need to check that the genome sequencing, and then the genome annotation, are done correctly.
To make sure that everything is up to par, Hatfull and his team train faculty at each participating school for quality control. "We… make sure that once the genome sequencing has been done, it needs to be validated, inspected, corrected, finished and polished.”
That process usually happens between semesters. Then, students continue with annotation in the spring, and the overseeing professors drop the data into central databases. A lot of coordination goes into making sure all the research is accurate. “It’s quite the process, I have to say.” And that’s without the more mundane challenges of coordinating thousands of people, like tracking down researchers with defunct email address.
The study is also the realization of years and years of work. The SEA-PHAGES program began in 2008, but this study includes research from an earlier iteration of the project: The Phage Hunters Integrating Research and Education (PHIRE) program. That means the research included dates back at least 13 years.
Still, Hatfull explained, the bulk of the data happened over the past few years — so it wouldn’t be accurate to divide the 2600+ researchers over 13 years. And, said Hatfull, the number of schools and students participating is accelerating. So get ready for more topically-named bacteriophages.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.