BISMARCK, ND — Sending a Star Wars fanatic on a scientific discovery mission could either mean a confrontation with the dark side or an exciting encounter with the forces of good. So, digging for soil samples in hopes of finding a virus that infects bacteria, or bacteriophage as it is called, could be regarded as both: a dirty crusade in an attempt to uncover something new and exciting.

And that’s just what happened to Luke. No, not Luke Skywalker, but another ‘young Jedi’ named Luke Keller. The senior University of Mary biology student from Eagan, MN, unearthed a new bacteria-eating virus—a specific variety nobody has ever found.

Luke Keller

“I first knew that I had discovered a phage when I saw that my enriched solution could kill off portions of our host bacteria. This formed plaques, or clearings in our bacteria plates that were easily visible to the naked eye,” said Keller, whose discovery came in a new yearlong SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) course that is divided into two semesters at the University of Mary. “As a class we faced many struggles, so finally seeing that I had found a phage was very exciting for myself, and the instructors.”

This discovery process was no small feat. Each phase of this course had an allotted amount of time for completion. After days and days of trying, this portion of the assignment was about to expire and Keller thought he would have to abort the operation without finding a phage.

“The professors allowed us to collect one final sample to test before we had to adopt one of the instructor phages,” added Keller.

Keller set out on foot looking for phages in a galaxy not all that far away or unknown, but very vast and open—the University of Mary campus. Armed with something far less intimidating than a lightsaber, Keller merely used clean spoons and conical tubes when his voyage landed him upon an old track and field shot put area.

“I chose the shot put area because there was a large pile of grass clippings that was lying near the tree rows,” added Keller. “The host bacterium that we used is known to like these conditions, so I dug approximately three inches under the pile to collect my soil sample. I discovered my phage very late in the semester. This meant that instead of meeting twice a week, I was in the lab almost every day with one of the professors. The instructors were more than willing to spend the extra time to help me run the experiments necessary to isolate the phage. Without their time and guidance, I would not have been able to isolate my phage by the end of the semester.”

Senior, Luke Keller, Eagan, MN, and fellow senior, Grace Burns, Philadelphia, PA, look at a plate full of bacteria through the light. Both students did extra research on phages and recently presented their work at the National SEA PHAGES Symposium in Virginia

“In a lot of science classes, students are asked questions by their instructors on exams, while the instructor already knows all the answers,” said Dr. David Ronderos assistant professor of biology at Mary who, along with colleagues Dr. Christine Fleischacker and Dr. Margret Nordlie, helped get this class started and become one of the most popular on campus. “When they do research however, the student is the one who asks the questions, to which no one knows the answers yet.  When student researchers see that data for the first time, there is something exhilarating about knowing that they’re the only ones on the earth who know the answer to that particular question, and it is then their job to go and tell others what they’ve discovered. That’s the joy of actually doing science, rather than merely talking about science. It is a privilege to be able to peer into some small part of God’s creation, and to see and discover something that was hitherto unknown, something of the beauty and mystery hidden in nature.”

A faith-based education is just one of the several reasons why Keller and his classmates chose to attend the University of Mary.

“Students don’t have to choose between whether to get a faithfully Catholic education or state-of-the-art training to become a scientist,” commented Ronderos. “They can do both at the University of Mary, and gain valuable research experience that can help them advance to the next stages of their education and career.”

“There are many things that I have enjoyed about being a student at the University of Mary,” added Keller. “I have made some amazing friendships with students and faculty, and my love of the sciences has grown. One thing that I like about this university is the variety of experiences the students have to study abroad. I participated in a medical mission to Peru. This medical mission further solidified my dream to become a physician, while also teaching me the importance of service. Also, the University of Mary was very affordable compared to the other schools I was looking at.”

Keller hopes to continue his science education by attending medical school before becoming a physician.

“Although discovering bacteriophages may seem mundane, I enjoy discovering them because while they have been around since antiquity, most of their population remains undiscovered,” added Keller, who feels blessed to use his God-given gifts to help discover a scientific universe filled with opportunity to help others and perhaps cure diseases.

“There are many reasons why phages are important to society. However, what I find most interesting is their possible uses in the medical field. Bacteriophages have the ability to infect and kill bacteria, for this reason phages have the potential to be used to treat bacterial infections that have grown resistant to other forms of antibiotic therapy. With the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria increasing, phages may be another useful tool in the treating of these infections.”

Unfortunately, Keller was the only one in his class to discover and isolate a bacteriophage from North Dakota soil. However, he and his classmates realize they were just minutes away from having a failed mission entirely. It’s for that reason this finding became so special to them.

“Due to the pressure, I labeled the petri dish that I used for the experiment ‘The Final Hope,’” Keller said. “I have been a Star Wars fan for as long as I can remember so when I did find the phage I decided to name it Old Ben, or Obi-Wan, because he was the final hope for the Republic in the Star Wars movies, just as Old Ben was the final hope for our class.”