Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center investigator Dr. Harmit Malik has been elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, an honorific leadership group within the American Society for Microbiology. Malik, a member of the Hutch's Basic Sciences Division and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, was one of 109 fellows elected this year. Annual fellow selection is a highly selective, peer-reviewed process that is based on nominees’ records of scientific achievement and original, microbiology-advancing contributions.
Malik studies genetic conflict, the competition between genes with opposing functions that shapes their evolution. Interactions between pathogens and host immune proteins influence evolution on both sides, as microbes and hosts evolve to evade or counteract the other's defenses.
“Harmit Malik has taught the field how to think about virology in a new way that relies on using evolution to understand the arms race between hosts and their pathogens,” nominator and Hutch colleague Dr. Michael Emerman said. Malik's approaches also connected traditional evolutionary genetics to the methodologies of biochemistry and genomics.
Together with Emerman, Malik also pioneered the field of paleovirology, the study of extinct viruses. Malik originated the idea of “evolutionary echoes” of past viral infections and how they imprinted on the regions of immune proteins that interact with pathogen targets. Using this information, he was able to infer the evolutionary influence of ancient viruses on host proteins, even in the absence of the viral sequences. In another case, he was able to resurrect an extinct primate virus from viral fossils and study how it might have shaped the evolution of a host antiviral protein.
“Malik is an extraordinarily creative scientist, and based on his brilliant insights and his exceptional track record, perhaps one of the best evolutionary biologists of his generation,” said Hutch colleagues Drs. Dan Gottschling and Steve Henikoff in a nomination letter they co-wrote. (Gottschling, formerly based in the Hutch Basic Sciences Division, remains an affiliate faculty member but now serves as head of research at Calico in San Francisco.)
For example, by applying the paradigm of host and parasite interactions to the genome, Malik revealed forces shaping the evolution of the centromere, a specialized segment of the chromosome that regulates chromosome segregation during cell division.
“I attribute my success in microbiology, a field in which I had no formal training prior to starting my lab, to my generous colleagues — including Michael Emerman, Julie Overbaugh, Denise Galloway, and Adam Geballe — and a group of amazing trainees, who helped drive the lab’s approaches to prominence,” Malik said. “I’m especially proud of the fact that many of these former trainees are now considered leaders in their respective fields.”
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.