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Harmit Malik's story sounds like a viral fairy tale. In it, Malik and his collaborator Michael Emerman awaken a 4-million-year-old retrovirus to discover how our hominid ancestors evolved a stout genetic defense against it while our chimp cousins did not. What Malik and his colleagues were after was not a microscopic version of Retroviral Park but an evolutionary insight into HIV, another retrovirus that made the long evolutionary trip to modern times where it found human antiviral defenses unprepared for it.
Malik's scientific story is much wider than retroviral measures and countermeasures. He is interested in genetic conflict both within our own cells and between our DNA and that of outsiders like HIV. He has used the conflict paradigm to gain insights into long-standing problems such as the ability of viruses to mimic our proteins and also the evolution of centromeres, structural DNA elements that are critical for proper cell division.
The Harmit Malik story begins with a degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and takes a turn toward evolutionary biology in a doctoral program at the University of Rochester. His engineering background made him comfortable with the flood of genomic data pouring out of mass sequencing and the ease with which living things could be sorted into evolutionary families, or phylogenetic trees, by new bioinformatics programs.
As a grad student, Malik helped usher the biology department into the bioinformatics age. It earned him a tribute from Barry Hall, the noted Rochester geneticist and author of Phylogenetic Trees Made Easy, who wrote in the foreword, “I am grateful to Dr. Harmit Malik, who patiently overcame my antipathy to phylogenetic analysis by teaching me how to use phylogenetic software. Much of the book comes directly from his help.” Hall continued, “This book began as an effort to record and organize his advice when we realized we could not keep him on hand forever.”
Photo: Suzie Fitzhugh