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The Science Behind Smaller Things

“Growing up, I was always interested in the science behind the smaller things that cause disease and illness.” —Hunter Cobbley

BYU microbiology student Hunter Cobbley (‘22) finished his undergraduate experience by receiving a College Undergraduate Research Award (CURA) award for his research on antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A CURA award is grant money distributed to students for mentored research. Cobbley’s journey to his CURA victory began with “Phage Hunters,” a two–semester class taught by microbiology and molecular biology professor Julianne Grose. In the class, students go through the process of “isolating, purifying, and characterizing previously unknown viruses that infect bacteria,” according to the Phage Hunters website.

A gloved hand puts a plastic dish under a microscope lens.
Cobbley took microscopic images of phages that have the ability to eliminate Proteus bacteriophage. This kind of research is important in developing new antibiotics.
Photo by Jaron Nix

“Growing up, I was always interested in the science behind the smaller things that cause disease and illness,” Cobbley said. “Dr. Grose steered that curiosity in a positive direction.”

Cobbley’s research focused on Proteus bacteriophage, an uncommon bacteria that causes gastrointestinal infections. First, Cobbley took a microscopic image of isolated bacteria phages equipped to eliminate Proteus bacteriophage. Then he tested phages against proteus cells in patients. It was most important for Cobbley to find phages that can kill the resistant proteus cells.

According to Cobbley, the future of antibiotics is rocky. As antibiotic-resistant bacteria continue to grow in strength and become more prevalent, alternative treatments will be necessary to cure bacterial infections. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies don't have a strong incentive to look for new infection treatments. Antibiotics are already cheap and available, eliminating the urgency to develop new ones.

Cobbley’s research identifies how supplementing bacteria phages with antibiotics could be a simple—and, more importantly—inexpensive solution to the dangerous issue of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. All it would take is a pill or throat spray, taken along with the antibiotic, to provide an extra level of protection against bacteria.

“I don’t think we’ll get rid of antibiotics, per se,” says Cobbley. “But I think we’ll be using bacteria phages in tandem with antibiotics to get the most effective treatment possible.”

“The lessons I learned in Dr. Grose’s lab will benefit me for the rest of my career and life,” Cobbley says. “Learning to accept help, talk about research, and help others are skills that will stick with me forever.”