Dr. Harmit Malik, an evolutionary biologist in the Basic Sciences Division, has received the 2010 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science. The honor, which carries a $25,000 prize, recognizes his research on the co-evolution of humans and diseases.
The annual Vilcek Foundation awards celebrate achievement in biomedical science and arts of people who have immigrated to the United States. The prizes epitomize the mission of the Vilcek Foundation, which honors the contributions of foreign-born individuals.
Malik, a native of India, joined the Center faculty in 2003. He is also an affiliate assistant professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist.
As a researcher of genetic conflict, Malik sees battles raging within a cell’s nucleus as genes jockey for evolutionary dominance. These clashes can have a long-term impact on organisms, as they sometimes alter the function of essential genes. Malik uses biochemistry and genomics to study the causes and consequences of these genetic conflicts in yeast, fruit flies and other model organisms. His work has offered novel explanations in two disciplines: host-pathogen interactions and the evolution of structural DNA elements (centromeres) that are critical for proper cell division.
Recently, Malik and colleagues have turned their attention to the phenomenon of “viral mimicry,” in which viral proteins can resemble host proteins to hijack important cellular functions. His lab showed that host proteins can evolve to defeat viral mimicry, providing yet another nuance to a never-ending “arms race” between hosts and viruses.
His lab also has shown that centromeres and the proteins that bind them evolve unusually rapidly in animal genomes. His lab hypothesized and is testing the model that such a genetic conflict may recurrently drive the onset of reproductive barriers between recently diverged species.
Malik is among four Vilcek awardees this year, who will be honored at the Foundation’s fifth annual awards presentation April 7 in New York City. Other winners are: