SEATTLE - May 9, 2013 - Harmit Singh Malik, Ph.D., an evolutionary geneticist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who studies genetic conflict – the competition between genes and proteins with opposing functions that drives evolutionary change – has been selected to become a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. He is among 27 of the nation’s top biomedical scientists to receive the honor this year out of a pool of more than 1,100 applicants.
"HHMI has a very simple mission," said HHMI President Robert Tjian. "We find the best original-thinking scientists and give them the resources to follow their instincts in discovering basic biological processes that may one day lead to better medical outcomes." HHMI investigators have the freedom to explore and, if necessary, to change direction in their research. They also have support to follow their ideas through to fruition, even if that process takes many years.
Malik's initial five-year appointment as an HHMI investigator, which will begin in September, comes with a salary, benefits, and a research budget. The Institute also will cover additional expenses, including research space and the purchase of critical equipment. The appointment may be renewed for additional five-year terms, each contingent upon a successful scientific review.
Malik, a member of the Fred Hutch Basic Sciences Division, has been an HHMI Early Career Scientist since 2009. His research harnesses the tools of biochemistry and genomics to chronicle the endless "genetic arms race" not just between organisms and pathogens but also within an individual species' genome.
"Harmit thinks creatively and fearlessly about his research. It is not that Harmit thinks outside of the box. It's that he does not even recognize the existence of boxes," said Mark Groudine, M.D., Ph.D., senior vice president and deputy director of Fred Hutch and a member of the Center's Basic Sciences Division.
Studying model organisms such as fruit flies and yeast, Malik sees conflicts raging within the nuclei of cells as genes jockey for evolutionary dominance. Such clashes can have a long-term impact on organisms, as they can alter the function of essential genes.
Delving deeper into genes that help fend off viral conflicts, Malik and colleagues have shown that adaptations in those genes offer a record of indirect "paleovirology," in which scientists try to identify ancient viruses by virtue of the imprints they leave on the evolution of host genes.
The structure of our genome reflects a "negotiated truce," Malik said, and the best way to understand that truce is to reconstruct the events that produced it. This approach has profound implications for medicine and science because it uncovers new antiviral strategies, mechanisms of immunity, and clues about autoimmune diseases such as lupus.
Malik's lab also investigates evolutionary competition between components that are involved in the essential process that ensures chromosomes divide and segregate equally during cell division. He has pioneered the idea that chromosomal competition for evolutionary dominance can drive the unexpectedly rapid evolution of these essential components. These findings have direct implications for how chromosomal imbalances can occur in cancer and for how two recently diverged species can become reproductively isolated from each other.
Malik's many awards include the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science for his work on the coevolution of humans and diseases, a Sloan Research Fellowship, a Kimmel Scholar Award, a Searle Scholar Award, and a Burroughs Wellcome New Investigator Award in Infectious Diseases. He is also the recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the nation's highest honor for scientists at the beginning of their independent research careers.
Malik earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai before obtaining a Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1999. He then came to Fred Hutch as a postdoctoral fellow in the Basic Sciences laboratory of Steven Henikoff, Ph.D., who is also an HHMI investigator. Malik joined the Fred Hutch faculty in 2003.
The roster of HHMI-funded researchers from Fred Hutch includes two Early Career Scientists, including Malik; two current investigators, including Nobel laureate Linda B. Buck, Ph.D.; and seven investigator alumni.