URI student studies viruses in Narragansett Bay that keep bacteria in check

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 17, 2021 – When algae blooms occur in Narragansett Bay, a wide variety of tiny marine organisms quickly multiply and consume most of the oxygen in the water. Some of those organisms are bacteria. But little is known about the innumerable viruses called bacteriophage that feed on the bacteria to keep them under control.

            University of Rhode Island senior Faith Brown has taken the first steps in the process by investigating these microscopic organisms to learn what varieties are found in the bay. She presented the results of her research at the URI Undergraduate Research Showcase in November.

            “Bacteriophage are found anywhere that bacteria are, which is just about everywhere on Earth. They are even present in our human stomachs, as their help regulating our gut microbiome is essential,” said Brown, a biological science and Chinese major from Bristol, Rhode Island. “It’s important to understand how they work. We have oodles of bacteria in the bay, and bacteriophage are crucial to keeping them in check.”

            Working in collaboration with Associate Professor Ying Zhang and graduate student Zachary Pimentel, Brown used DNA sequencing and bioinformatics to identify the bacteriophage in 12 samples collected before, during and after an algae bloom that occurred in Narragansett Bay during the winter of 2018.

            Based on the DNA the team extracted from the samples, 22 percent of the organisms in the samples were bacteriophage, which is a greater percentage than they expected based on previous studies.

“What was also surprising was that the relative abundance of bacteria and bacteriophage wasn’t aligned,” Brown said. “Bacteria abundance was low before the bloom, it peaked during the bloom, and then dropped off, but the bacteriophage didn’t follow the same pattern. We’re still trying to figure out why.”

They found a similar pattern when measuring the diversity of bacteria and bacteriophage species before, during and after the bloom. They are now conducting a similar analysis with an additional 68 samples.

Before beginning this work, Brown knew little about bacteriophage. Now she is considering pursuing related studies in graduate school.

“I had never done anything in the microbiology-bioinformatics wheelhouse,” she said. “I never before wrote computer code to help us figure out the genetics of these things. But it was a nice change of pace and a nice novelty to learn something totally new to me.”

Brown’s research was supported by a fellowship through the URI Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows program, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The program provides students with 10-weeks of intensive research training and insight into real-world research activities to help them decide upon a future career path.

“Before this fellowship, I felt like research was something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure I was capable of doing it,” said Brown, who also sings in the URI acapella group Musically Inclined. “But I found that I can do it and I enjoy it.

“When I came to URI, my plan was to go into neuroscience, and that’s still a consideration,” she added. “I never expected to like microbiology, but now that I’ve done it, it’s not impossible to think that I could do it in grad school.”

Her first step is to complete her undergraduate coursework at URI by next May while also applying for graduate schools.

“In 5 or 10 years, I’d like to be doing research, whether it’s primarily in the field or in a lab or on the computer,” Brown said. “I don’t know if it matters which one, because I like all of them now.”