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UD researchers receive $6 million to probe viruses, microbes

Courtesy of University of Delaware

University of Delaware researchers will use a $6 million grant to study how viruses affect microorganisms that help grow our food or help us breathe.


Scientists know that viruses can make us sick. They can also alter how energy flows through ecosystems. But while researchers can see the big picture, they don’t fully understand how viruses work, said Eric Wommack, the associate dean for research and graduate programs with UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.


“It’s fundamental science, but as we start to make more connections between genes and biology, we can start to make better predictions within the systems they inhabit,” Wommack said.


With help from a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, UD researchers will study microbes to pinpoint connections between genes and viruses. They’re using relatively new technology called “microfluidics", which enables researchers to manipulate very small volumes of fluid. Jason Gleghorn, a UD biomedical engineering professor, said rather than mixing a virus in a test-tube, they’ll shrink it down into droplets that are roughly half the diameter of a human hair. 


“For each one of those little droplets, we can run reactions and interactions and understand how viruses and microbes interact together,” Gleghorn said.


“It’s like ‘Honey I Shrunk The Lab’,” Wommack added.

Alongside the microfluidics portion, Shawn Polson, a UD computer and information science professor, will be a part of the team looking at DNA sequencers for the organisms and trying to put a biological context to the relationship between an organism’s genes and physical features.


“When we get the feature data back from the microfluidics, we can start to apply which genes we see in those viruses and figure out how the linkage may occur,” Polson said. 


Learning more about this relationship could help create new drug therapies or better predict diseases. UD also plans to teach the research to the general public and use the findings as a tool for teachers in middle school to add to their curriculum.


The team will partner with Robert Ferrell, a science teacher in the Appoquinimink School District, to put the findings into a context that middle school students can understand.

“I see us planting the seed by talking about viruses in a way that students really can start to grapple it within their learning,” Ferrell said. “Instead of them thinking about viruses being this harmful thing, they start to learn that viruses are everywhere and they are a very important mechanisms for things that happen later in the system.”


The project is one of eight across the country that will help build on research on genes versus physical characteristics. The National Science Foundation awarded a total of $41.7 million for projects like these.

“Viruses are here for a reason. The reason isn’t just to give us the flu, or a cold or a dangerous disease. They have many other reasons for being here. They wouldn’t have existed for the 4 billion years of life on this planet if they weren’t here for a reason,” Wommack said.


He continued, “We’re here to find out what those reasons are.”