Emilia Czyszczon (pictured at right), a sophomore bioengineering student at Purdue University, made her unlikely discovery while collecting samples of mud for a science project. Unlike other members in her class, who took their samples at or around campus, Czyszczon decided to scour for her sample in a far-away cave she had remembered passing by on a recent family trip to Bedford, Ind.
Little did she know at the time, but her journey would lead her on a genuine scientific odyssey with unexpected results. After traveling for more than three hours to the cave, Czyszczon and a friend rode a small aluminum boat along an underground river before settling upon a sufficiently remote spot to scrape a sample of wet muck from the cave wall.
Czyszczon's efforts paid off after she brought the sample back to the lab for analysis. It turns out the cave was no ordinary cave; the sample she chose was actually glacial mud, largely untouched since the ice age.
"I couldn't believe it," Czyszczon said. "Mine was so unique that my professor really wanted to see what would come of it."
Further analysis proved to be even more remarkable. Lurking in the dank sample of cave mud she collected was a virus previously unknown to science — a bacteriophage that attacks bacteria from the same family as those that cause tuberculosis.
In other words, despite the usual connotation associated with the discovery of a virus, this virus is not harmful to humans. Rather, just the opposite: it is a virus that attacks bacterial strains that could be harmful to humans. The discovery has prompted the adventurous young Czyszczon to look ahead in her career; she has already received grant money to probe into the DNA of the virus to help find alternative cures for debilitating diseases like tuberculosis.
"We're looking at an alternative medicine, basically," she said. "Some strains of tuberculosis are getting resistant to antibiotics. So maybe this leads, in some way, to other treatments."
Czyszczon was also honored by having the virus she discovered named after her: it's called Czyszczon1 (the "1," perhaps, in case this virus is just the first that the aspiring scientist discovers). The naming of the virus also honors her father, who she credits with bestowing her with the perseverance it took to make her unique discovery.
"She was explaining to me these tiny things, how they work," Andrew Czyszczon, her father, said. "It's amazing. She tries to explain what she's doing, and I don't completely understand. But we're very proud of her."
Czyszczon is also thankful for the national program created by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which sponsored her project, as well as hundreds of similar projects currently being carried out by students across the country. Called the National Genomics Research Initiative, the program's purpose is to build a massive database of bacteriophages that can be used by the scientific community to conduct medical and evolutionary research.
"Everyone had told me the class was boring," joked Czyszczon. "But we got in and they said we'd have a chance to discover a virus. Of course I'd want to discover a virus and give it my name. Who wouldn't?"
You can learn more about her research in the video above.
Also on MNN: