Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center evolutionary biologist Dr. Harmit Malik was elected today to the National Academy of Sciences. Members are elected to this honor, one of the highest a scientist can receive, on the basis of their “distinguished and continuing achievements in original research,” according to the NAS press release. Malik was one of 100 new members announced on April 30.
Malik, a member of the Basic Sciences Division and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, studies genetic conflict, the evolutionary arms races that shape how genes (and the proteins they encode) evolve. A deeper understanding of this phenomenon, which includes the arms race between viruses and their hosts, could have implications for human health, such as providing insights that lead to improved HIV drugs.
“We are really fortunate to have Harmit in the division,” Basic Sciences Division Director Dr. Sue Biggins wrote in an email. “He is a remarkable scientist who exploits evolutionary arms races to identify novel mechanisms of protein evolution. This has led to major discoveries about how viruses and hosts interact, how organisms acquire new essential genes, and why centromeres [DNA structures that are critical to proper cell division] are rapidly evolving.”
Genetic conflict can occur between species as well as within individual organisms of a species, and Malik has studied the phenomenon in both contexts.
Focusing on the interaction between viruses and their hosts, Malik pioneered the idea of “evolutionary echoes,” the traces of long-ago viral infections that left their mark on the host immune proteins that combat viruses. Using these echoes, Malik was able to infer the evolutionary influences of ancient, extinct viruses on the immune proteins of primates and, with Hutch colleague Dr. Michael Emerman, help pioneer the field of paleovirology.
Looking within a single organism, Malik found evidence that genetic conflict shapes the centromere. That work illuminated why the DNA sequence at centromeres is the most rapidly evolving section of DNA in the genomes of many organisms, including humans. His lab has shown that rapid evolution of centromeric DNA and proteins that are recruited to centromeres can lead to reproductive isolation — the inability to successfully produce offspring — between emerging species and result in defective cell division.
Malik “has made tremendous contributions to multiple fields through his clever and unique approach to studying genomes,” wrote Biggins, who was herself elected to NAS membership in 2015. And his contributions extend far beyond research, she noted: “Harmit is also a wonderful mentor and colleague to all.”
“It is my good fortune to work alongside so many wonderful colleagues at the Hutch including two of my closest mentors, Steve Henikoff and Michael Emerman. I had inspirational role models for a career and life in science in them and in my Ph.D. mentor, Tom Eickbush. I will be ever grateful for his patient mentoring through the fledgling phase of my career,” Malik said when reached for comment.
“It is no secret that this award is a direct result of the amazing trainees I was lucky enough to have recruited to my lab, many of whom are well on their way to science superstardom. I am especially grateful to three senior scientists — Danielle Vermaak, Aida de la Cruz, and Janet Young — and to my family, especially my wife Chandni Duggal for her unwavering support,” he added.
Malik is one of eleven Hutch scientists who have been elected members of the NAS, including his mentor, Henikoff, and Nobel Prize winners Drs. Linda Buck, E. Donnall Thomas and Lee Hartwell. Most recently, Dr. James Priess was elected in 2017.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a Ph.D. in immunology from the University of Washington, an M.A. 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.