(l to r) Jack Goedken, Lauren Kirkle, Raegen Matthews, and Zefanias Ngove

(l to r) Jack Goedken, Lauren Kirkle, Raegen Matthews, and Zefanias Ngove

By Addie Nabholz ’25

A group of Wartburg students had their research discovery published in the American Society of Microbiology Journal.

Zefanias Ngove, Raegen Matthews, Jack Goedken and Lauren Kirkle as well as alumna Sophia Huntington published “The Discovery and Characterization of Bacteriophages Guetzie and SirVictor,” under the supervision of Sean Coleman, associate professor of biology.

The team began working on the project in summer 2022. It continued into the fall, and after many months of genome annotations and writing, the research was published in January 2024.

“The students discovered two novel bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria), SirVictor and Guetzie. This is significant because evidence suggests that deaths due to antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections could become the number one cause of death by 2050,” said Coleman. “Medicine needs new ways to combat infections by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One way to do this could be bacteriophages, which infect very specific bacteria. Phages from other schools in the Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) program have already been used to save the lives of people with untreatable infections.”

But bacteriophages could have another potential use.

“Bacteriophages are also contenders for use in agricultural settings to control crop infestations. However, in order for phages to become staple solutions in agricultural or clinical settings, the number of phages that have been identified and had their genomes sequenced into data libraries needs to be supplemented,” said Matthews, a biology major from Urbandale. “This is what our group worked to accomplish with the addition of the bacteriophages Guetzie and SirVictor.”

These viruses were found in a sample of dirt from Wartburg College’s campus, but the research group worked through many more steps before they would find out exactly what they had discovered.

“After sampling, we spent several weeks in the lab isolating, purifying and amplifying a bacteriophage from that sample. From that point we sent the bacteriophage sample off to be imaged with an electron microscope as well as genetically sequenced,” said Goedken, a biology major from Iowa City. “When we received the genetic sequence back, we went through every gene and determined possible functions for the protein of each gene. It was a good mix of both lab work and analytical work on the computer.”

Goedken believes this research has helped him and will continue to help him reach his career goals. “My work on this project helped me learn skills that eventually landed me a lab assistant job at University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine over the summer,” said Goedken. “Research experience and publications are a large factor in medical school acceptances. Having this published will also be a huge boost to my medical school applications.”

After making these discoveries, Matthews says her interest in research grew.

“When I first started conducting research, I intended for it to be a side project that I would commit maybe a few hours a week to. However, once we began making more discoveries and progress, research became more of a priority for me and was even my summer job between my junior and senior year,” she said. “Although I am attending medical school and not pursuing research as my career, I have been able to see and appreciate firsthand how small-scale research can contribute to national discoveries. I plan to continue research throughout medical school as well.”

Research like this is how the Wartburg Department of Biology sets itself apart.

“SirVictor was identified as part of the CURE program in Cell Biology class. These experiences are part of what makes the biology education at Wartburg College unique,” said Coleman. “Students start doing authentic research in the first semester of their first year on campus, and it continues throughout their four years. This helps prepare our students for graduate and professional school as well as jobs in the workforce. After a CURE experience, the students feel like they belong as scientists, which can be a powerful motivator for persistence to graduation.”

The research was supported by the Wartburg Undergraduate Research Fund.