Senior majoring in the Biochemistry Option of
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Summers are often a time when students have the opportunity to relax from the stress of their academic workloads and spend their time either working or spending time with family and friends. Not Sinyoung. As a recipient of a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (S.U.R.F.) Award she spent the 2020 summer conducting research, specifically using bioinformatics to analyze Pseudomonas tolaasii, and its bacteriophage, from Agaricus bisporus mushroom in an effort to advance the scientific understanding needed to treat Brown blotch disease by phage therapy.
Brown blotch disease is a devastating bacterial infection that affects the majority of the world’s mushroom species. Caused by Pseudomonas tolaasii, it produces toxin tolassin which causes brown spots to develop on the surface of mushrooms. Brown Blotch Disease spreads rapidly, especially with average irrigation, and causes mushrooms to grow physically close to one another. The close proximity in which the mushrooms grow then results in the disease being spread at a fast pace by physical contact. A significant issue on mushroom farms, the disease reduces the quality of mushrooms and leads to potential yield loss. Sinyoung’s research investigates the lytic bacteriophages assay and its potential use in phage therapy.
The practice of phage therapy, which uses bacterial viruses (phages) to treat bacterial infections, has been around for almost a century. With the universal decline in effectiveness of antibiotics, a renewed interest in phage therapy has sparked and many scientists are revisiting the practice. Phage therapy conventionally relies on the use of naturally occurring phages to infect and lyse bacteria at the site of infection. Current research on the use of phages and their lytic proteins, specifically against multidrug-resistant bacterial infections, suggests that phage therapy has the potential to be used as an alternative or a supplement to antibiotic treatments.
Sinyoung and her research are fortunate to be supported and mentored by not one, but three faculty at Penn State. Drs. Gregory Broussard, Carolee Bull, and Kevin Hockett comprise a collaborative support system that is helping guide her as she furthers her research. Sinyoung’s research investigates a sampling of symptomatic and asymptomatic mushrooms collected from local grocery stores. Her research required her to isolate and identify the lytic bacteriophages found within each mushroom. The fluorescent Pseudomonas found in the asymptomatic mushrooms were isolated to be used for future pathogenicity tests, and additional phages were isolated using Pseudomonas tolaasii isolates as a host.
Sinyoung accomplished the isolation of the lytic bacteriophages just prior to the 2020 summer and had planned to conduct phage isolation and pathogenicity tests as part of her summer research. Pathogenicity tests will determine which Psuedomonas mushroom pathogens are pathogenic and which are non-pathogenic. Once this has been determined, she will be able to isolate the phage and determine the lytic/lysogenic nature of each isolate. Lytic bacteriophages will be used as assays for the potential usage in phage therapy.
Unfortunately, Sinyoung was unable to conduct her phage isolation and pathogenicity tests due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent move to remote studies by most universities. Fortunately, Sinyoung was able to adapt her research to align with her inability to work in the lab at University Park and spent her summer learning about, and conducting, bioinformatics research instead. Utlizing Multilocus Sequence Analysis during the fall 2020 semester, Sinyoung will be able to identify Psuedomonas mushroom pathogens and define their phylogenic relationships.
Sinyoung was introduced to the concept of phages while taking BMB 210 & BMB 294, both Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) courses taught by Associate Teaching Professor, Gregory Broussard. Sinyoung, and her fellow students in the course, were able to explore different types of viruses, current viral research, and how these relate to events currently going on in the world. Through the course they learned fundamental skills in the process, comprehension, and communication of science and began to use bioinformatic tools to explore viral genomes and come up with interesting research questions.
“Receiving the SURF award was really helpful for me in preparing for the mushroom phage research,” said Sinyoung. “The award allowed me to continue to focus on the research and stay in school for the summer.” Sinyoung also credits the award for giving her the opportunity to learn new and diverse techniques that she will need to continue her research and advance through her training. Additionally, she is also preparing to begin work on research regarding bird fMRI and lipid bilayers.
After graduation, Sinyoung hopes to continue her research, investigating the lytic bacteriophages assay and its potential use in phage therapy. Although not entirely sure where, she hopes to apply to a graduate program the affords her the opportunity to continue working in the field of biochemistry. No matter what the future holds for Sinyoung, she remains excited and dedicated to push the boundaries and limits of scientific discovery.