Dr. Jesse Bloom, a researcher in Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Basic Sciences Division and Herbold Computational Biology Program, has been named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Bloom combines computational and experimental methods to study viral evolution, understand how specific mutations influence infection and how new properties arise from complex evolutionary paths.
“I feel incredibly fortunate,” said Bloom of the award, which offers investigators seven years of guaranteed funding. “This HHMI grant is an opportunity to really expand and move in new directions.”
His primary interest is evolution; viruses, particularly influenza virus, are a model in which he and his team can tackle evolution’s general principles, Bloom said. During his seven years at the Hutch, he has considered two major questions. First, what are the consequences of the particular mutations that occur during influenza epidemics and pandemics? And second, what are the evolutionary paths that viruses take to acquire a new characteristic that can’t be gained through a single mutation?
Bloom, also an affiliate associate professor in the University of Washington Department of Genome Sciences, has investigated these questions in several different ways. In one study, he and his team examined the ways in which mutations interact during viral evolution. In another, he integrated what scientists know about the impacts of specific mutations — such as whether a mutation alters the protein that influenza uses to enter host cells — to build better evolutionary trees charting viral evolution.
Bloom also has used deep sequencing and high-throughput techniques to better understand which mutations influence the host immune system’s ability to recognize the virus and map how these mutations affect characteristics such as infectivity.
Most recently, he and Weintraub Award-winning graduate student Katherine Xue collaborated with Hutch colleagues to study influenza virus evolution within people, and they saw that it partially mirrored viral evolution on a global scale.
“We were able to get a really nuanced view of how the virus was changing in individual people,” Bloom said. “You can imagine how viruses changing in any one person are due to phenotypic effects of these mutations, and what you actually see on the large global scale is really the net outcome of how the virus changed in lots of individual infections.”
Bloom is looking forward to the stability and flexibility that comes with the HHMI award.
“It’s very rarely the case in science that you can get support for more than a few years,” he said. Particularly in Bloom’s work, which combines computational methods and coding with wet lab experiments, it’s good to have a funding source that supports “really good people” who work to develop experiments in addition to running them.
The HHMI award will also enable Bloom to strike out in new directions. Having spent his career focusing primarily on the mutations that underlie the changing qualities of viruses, he’s excited to possibly tackle the variation in infections from a new perspective — the host.
“One of the questions we’ve studied a lot over the last several years is, what are the genetic changes [within viruses] that allow viruses to escape from immunity and infect people?” Bloom said. “One of the big-picture questions that I’m interested in is the flipside … what determines why infections with similar viruses can have such different outcomes in different people?”
Bloom is grateful to his lab members and other Hutch colleagues who have mentored him and helped him prepare for his HHMI interview, particularly Drs. Sue Biggins, Harmit Malik and Julie Overbaugh.
“I feel very lucky,” he said.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.