Jesse Bloom is fascinated by evolution.
Think how amazing it is, he says, that in nature, small, random genetic changes can add up to something new and wonderful – a stark contrast to the world of things. “If you make random mutations to your car with a baseball bat, you’re probably not going to improve the car very much,” he says. “So what is it about biology that allows living things to be so good at evolving?”
Bloom is tackling this question by helping to pioneer new approaches for studying evolution. He’s combining biology with computational wizardry. “Traditionally, evolutionary biology has been an observational science,” he explains. Researchers looked back on the creation of new species, like Darwin’s finches, or bold new innovations, like the ability to fly, then searched for the genetic steps that paved the way.
But thanks in part to Bloom, scientists don’t have to wait for nature to do its work. “Now we can do large-scale experiments in the lab that can help to explain evolution,” Bloom says. In his own lab, he’s making tens of thousands of mutations in flu viruses to see what effect they have. At the same time, he’s also charting genetic changes that appear in nature. Bloom’s goal is to discern patterns in evolution and use his mathematical modeling skills to predict what’s coming – offering a major public health advance.