Digging through mud and dirt sounds like a chore to most, but to students of CR Anderson Middle School it sounds like a hunt.
What are they hunting for exactly? Phages.
"Phages are a virus that infects and kills bacteria," said Marissa Pedulla, professor of Biology at Montana Tech. "They can't infect human cells, but do attack specific types of bacteria."
Pedulla says the number of phages, short for bacteriophage, are approximately 10 times the total number of bacteria. One type of bacteria can have more than 13,000 different phages that can attack it. This makes phages an invaluable scientific tool that can be used to combat certain bacteria that develop resistance to antibiotics.
In 2005, Pedulla met a Helena High School teacher who asked her to hold a meeting speaking to the teachers of Helena Public Schools. It was there that she met Megan Lane, a seventh grade biology teacher at C.R. Anderson, who asked her to come present to her class. Every year since, Pedulla has worked with the students as they collect samples in hopes that they might hit the one-in-100 chance of finding the right kind of phage.
"Every student's tube has phages in it," Pedulla said. But the students of C.R. Anderson are seeking phages that are closely related to Mycobacterium smegmatis. This bacterium is of the same genius, but different enough from tuberculosis that its phages still might attack it. These phages are not dangerous in any way to the students collecting them.
The idea is that these students may find phages that are able to help combat tuberculosis in the future. With approximately 150 students collecting phages each year for the project, they have contributed just over a dozen useful samples to a collection held at the University of Pittsburgh.
"One milliliter of pond water has about 10 million phages in it," Pedulla said.
This is how students go about hunting for phages. Lane said they simply collect a sample in nature, typically from dirt or water. Mycobacterium smegmatis is soil based, so dirt and muddy water samples are great ways to find phages that affect it.
Lane described the phage hunt as a numbers game. There are so many phages that the potential number is measured in exponents. Of that massive number, each bacteria has a huge number that will impact it specifically. As the numbers whittle down there are even fewer that can ultimately kill that bacteria.
"The question is: Can it affect the mycobacterium?" Lane said.
When phages can make an impact on a bacteria, the scientific value can be huge. Articles recently published by PBS and NPR told the story of 17-year-old Isabelle Carnell-Holdaway, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 15. After a double lung transplant, Holdaway was left with a "superbug" infection of Mycobacterium abcessus that was killing her. A highly experimental procedure where she was injected with a cocktail of genetically modified phages allowed her to recover.
Though Holdaway isn't cured, she has managed to return to a normal life. Most patients in her position die shortly after. She still receives the phage cocktail injection on a daily basis.
Pedulla said it's very likely the phages C.R. Anderson students collected were tested in the study that led to saving Holdaway. The phages in the cocktail were part of the same 15,000-phage collection held at the University of Pittsburgh.
Lane said that with so many bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, phages have more potential than ever. Phages have the ability to adapt, giving them a better chance to keep evolving alongside the bacteria and killing it. Lane said the results of this case will likely blow her students' minds.
"It makes this very real for them," Lane said.
However, saving lives isn't the only contribution of the phage hunt. Lane said the biggest contribution is what her students take away from it.
"It makes the world of science more personal, and students might consider science as a career even if they haven't before," Lane said. "The kids get to work with exciting equipment and get to meet with real scientists and see that they are real people."
Lane said she has seen the motivation the phage hunt inspires in the students she has taught for the past 14 years.
"It's a genuine taste of scientific discovery for students," Pedulla said. "And it gives them motivation."
With phage research becoming more prominent and Pedulla's research expanding to more schools, her motivation to continue has been stronger than ever.
"I think an equally valid aspect of this is 'What kind of organisms are on our planet?'" Pedulla said. "We don't really know what is here if we don't count microbes."
Ultimately, students at C.R. Anderson are contributing to something that could save more lives in the future.
Since 2014, the phage discovery project, funded by the National Institute of Health's Science Education Partnership Award, has been in partnership with the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program. Funding and teamwork through these agencies has allowed the project to spread to thousands of students across the state.