Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center evolutionary biologist Dr. Harmit Malik has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS. He is the 15th Fred Hutch scientist to be recognized by AAAS for their efforts to advance science or its applications. Malik, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, studies genetic conflict, in which evolutionary changes are driven by competition between genes and proteins with opposing functions.
AAAS highlighted the new research areas that Malik has explored by applying evolutionary theories of conflict. His approach has shed light on the historical interplay between viruses and their hosts, as well as the ever-changing relationship between DNA and its packaging proteins.
“My work suggests that picking a gene to study based on its evolutionary trajectory, rather than what it does, may be worthwhile,” Malik said.
Malik began studying genetic conflict through an evolutionary lens while he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Hutch lab of Dr. Steve Henikoff, another AAAS fellow, who studies the structure, function and evolution of our chromosomes.
“I was following my curiosity as to why some genes evolve rapidly,” Malik said. “I thought it might be driven by participating in an arms race. I had no idea at the time if this was correct.”
But Henikoff gave Malik the freedom to pursue what was, at the time, an off-the-wall idea. It turned out to be such a rich area of study that Malik was able to build his career off it.
"Harmit's work has been transforming traditional evolutionary genetics into a discipline that is rooted in biochemistry and genomics,” Henikoff said.
After Malik joined Fred Hutch as a faculty member in 2003, he collaborated with Hutch colleague Dr. Michael Emerman to pioneer the study of extinct viruses, a field now called paleovirology. Malik theorized that past viral infections had left imprints on host DNA that would allow him and Emerman to infer how they’d influenced the evolution of host antiviral proteins.
It may be easy to understand that viruses and their hosts may be locked in an age-old struggle for dominance, but genetic push-pull can also be found within a single species. Malik also studies the centromere, a specialized area of our chromosome that’s essential to proper chromosome segregation during cell division. Applying a similar paradigm of parasite-host interactions, he found that a species’ centromere evolves in concert with its specialized, centromere-only DNA packaging proteins.
“Virus-host interactions and chromatin might not be the most logical pairing, but the common theme is that both rapidly evolve,” Malik said. “That back and forth between these two projects has been a fundamental function of my lab. Many of the things I’m cited for I don’t work on anymore, because the people who did have moved on and taken those projects with them. Now they’re better known in the field than I am, which I think is the best outcome.”
Malik emphasized others’ contributions to his success: Henikoff’s and Emerman’s support early in his career, and his mentees’ work in carrying those ideas forward.
"I am indebted to my mentors and trainees for helping me frame and carry out my research vision in such a collegial manner," he said.
Malik is one of 443 AAAS Fellows elected this year. The 2019 class will be honored at the Fellows Forum during the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington.
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 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.