Evolutionary "arms races" result from genetic conflict between human and viral genes


Why do most human genes evolve slowly, while a few are "running on the evolutionary treadmill"? Rapid gene evolution can sometimes be explained by genetic conflict. A good example is the competition that exists between viruses and their hosts, where each evolves in order to avoid elimination by the other.

Evolutionary change resulting from historical viral infections has left a molecular fossil record in our DNA sequence. We are using a broad array of techniques from molecular evolution, virology, and comparative genomics to look at human and primate genes that encode inhibitors of viral infection. Our goal is to learn about natural strategies that have been successful at beating viruses in the past, and how these might be exploited in the fight against modern viral attacks.

Our lab also studies the process of retroviral integration in hopes that this will help us understand the deadly reservoir of HIV genomes which integrate into the chromosomes of infected people. It is this reservoir that makes HIV essentially incurable once someone has become infected. We have developed model systems in yeast and human cells to test the implications of evolutionary innovation on this process.

We are also interested in a systems biology approach to explore how human genes can change enough to avoid susceptibility to new viruses, yet still maintain their ability to perform other important cellular functions. We are interested in the net effects that evolutionary change can have on multiple, intertwined biological systems.