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What Makes a Genius? A Conversation with MacArthur Fellow, Nels Elde

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What Makes a Genius? A Conversation with MacArthur Fellow, Nels Elde

Oct 06, 2020

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: What makes a genius? Today, we'll talk with the University of Utah Health evolutionary geneticist, Dr. Nels Elde, a 2020 Genius Grant winner. Dr. Elde, congratulations.

Dr. Elde: Thanks, Julie.

Interviewer: How do you feel?

Dr. Elde: I feel pretty good. I have been trying to convince my wife for many years that I am indeed a genius, although the MacArthur Foundation likes to point out that it's a creativity award. So maybe that's a more fair definition.

Interviewer: Well, I'm glad you said that because that is my very first question. The MacArthur Fellowship, or Genius Grant, is known for pinpointing individuals who are not only dedicated to their pursuits but who are also creative and incredibly original, comes up with their own line of thinking, and goes after it. I'm wondering how do those qualities manifest themselves in your work and in yourself?

Dr. Elde: That's a great question. So I have to say I'm just absolutely thrilled for . . . surprised and thrilled for receiving this award. As you know, Julie, in my lab we study the evolution of interactions between infectious microbes and their hosts, and those microbes are mostly viruses.

I'd say the year 2020, for more worse than better in a lot of ways, has been the year of the virus as we're all grappling with the current pandemic. And so to be recognized for a lot of our work on the evolution of viruses and also the evolution of our immune system, how do our immune systems recognize and fight viruses, and putting that into the sort of longer evolutionary context, it's really an incredible honor to be recognized for our work there.

Interviewer: You describe yourself as an evolutionary geneticist. You touched on that a little bit, but how would you explain that term?

Dr. Elde: Well, I grew up actually as a cell biologist. I was really curious about . . . if you just look at our cells or cells of other critters, how they're put together, but more than that, what are the shared features between them in unrelated species, cells from unrelated species?

And this got this idea sort of stuck in my head or this interest that I couldn't sort of put down, which is what does that really mean from a genetic standpoint? The DNA that encodes the genes and the proteins that are doing the work in the cells or even the architecture of the cells, how are all those things related over evolutionary time? And so that's kind of what moved me into this area of evolutionary genetics, and in particular, got really excited about the interactions or collisions between infectious microbes, so things like viruses, bacteria, fungal pathogens, and our immune system or our cells in general. And so that's where we've been doing this work now at Utah for coming up on 10 years.

Interviewer: So you're talking about collisions between viruses and humans or animals. What do you mean by that and what happens when those collisions happen?

Dr. Elde: Yeah, I think this is an idea that's pretty much front and center these days. So we've had a lot of unfortunate collisions with viruses. With the current coronavirus pandemic, SARS-2, if we use that as an example, I think it can illustrate sort of what's going on here.

So we're still obviously sort of trying to frantically learn what's going on, but there is this idea that a virus very closely related, or identical basically, to the pandemic strain was circulating perhaps in bats or another animal, what we would call a reservoir where the virus is replicating but not having maybe a visible or certainly not medical impact. Then somehow there is a physical collision between us and these animals that might be harboring these viruses.

This is, by the way, happening constantly all around us and to us. And most of the time, nothing happens actually. It's sort of a dead-end event. The collision, the virus ricochets off of the host, which could be us or another animal.

But then in these really rare cases, these spillover events, something really consequential could happen. The collision, just like a car accident, might really change your life. And that's what happening to us all now, as we know sometime back last fall or about a year ago, maybe early winter, this virus emerged. So it spilled over somehow from a still somewhat mysterious animal reservoir and it began to replicate in humans and, worse than that, transmit between humans. Now, one collision, one car accident, becomes millions of collisions. And we're still working with the impact of that today.

Interviewer: And so what's the value of learning that information?

Dr. Elde: We've seen that viruses are pretty impactful, and so it's really important, I think, for many reasons. We're actually both practical, so if we can understand how do these viruses change and defeat, for example, our immune defenses, then we might have a better chance of actually countering them.

And so if we can understand what it is that makes these viruses tic, how they replicate better or worse, whether it's in just a few short days or a number of years, then we're starting to learn their secrets, their tricks, for how they become successful and, in many cases, which makes us sick or unsuccessful, and then can we kind of bend the curve? Can we start to intervene?

At the same time, we are interested in maybe a slightly different question as well, a bigger question, which is how does evolution work? So viruses because they replicate so quickly and mutate so fast, it's almost like a little laboratory of evolution that you can see before your eyes.

So half our lab involves setting up evolution in action. This is experimental evolution. We're taking viruses that are weakened strains, so they're not dangerous, and we allow them to continuously replicate just to see if they get better. Can they return to their old state? Not turn into superbugs, but can they just improve a little bit?

And actually, over the course of a few months, watching that process, we're learning about how evolution works. It turns that not only how viruses replicate allows them to be successful, but a lot of the same mechanisms are at play over a longer time course in our own genomes, our own DNA, as we look at all of the diversity in our own species.

And so the viruses are sort of giving these gifts back. We have all these terrible health consequences that we're grappling with around the world today, and yet there is also this sort of positive side where they are actually sort of teaching us both about evolutionary process and even how our cells work in some cases.

Interviewer: So you witness these relentless attacks from viruses and how they can just change on a whim to overcome our defenses. In a way, that's pretty scary. I mean, what gives you hope at the end of the day?

Dr. Elde: It is true. I think we've been focusing on a lot of the negative consequences of viruses these days. The good news is that we have these incredibly complex and amazing immune systems that counter these viruses. And so that's the other half of the work that we're doing in the lab, is to try to understand the evolution of the host. And the host could be us. It could be our close relatives among the primates.

Here, we don't have that luxury of evolution happening as quickly. Our generation times are more like 20 years than 20 minutes. And so what we do is take a very different approach, and that is to compare all of the diversity of modern species, and in particular the slight differences in our immune defenses, and then try to work backwards. What did our ancestors look like, and how has this changed? Maybe not over the course of 3 months but over the course of 30,000 or 300,000 years.

And in doing that, what we're beginning to discover is all of this incredible diversity, these genetic patterns that sort of give some of the clues to how it is that we exist at all.

Our immune systems have been up to the task, and in many cases, in increasing cases, we've actually used our knowledge that we've gained about these interactions to start to bend the curve, whether these are new vaccines that we've seen that have worked in some of the viruses that we've been studying or ones we're dealing with now. There is really great reasons for optimism that now, in addition to all this diversity, we're using our brains as scientists to start to bend the curve and to learn how to have better outcomes.

Interviewer: Yeah, that's really amazing. And just the idea that you can watch evolution in the lab, that you can kind of manipulate that and see how it unfolds, that just sounds amazing.

I love listening to you talk about this and you use words like "fun" and you can hear the excitement in your voice and just the way that you describe things is very imaginative.

I know that training trainees, post-docs and graduate students, is something that's very important to you. Are there ways that you can instill kind of this same creativity that you're known for in them?

Dr. Elde: Yeah, that's certainly the hope. And this has been a challenging few months as we've been dealing with the pandemic, so a lot of our work, of course, is over Zoom meetings or working alone. But it's exactly what you're saying, Julie. That doesn't represent sort of the main energy of the lab, which is working together and kind of teaming up.

And so the scientific process really is to me and I think to the trainees . . . it can obviously be hard and there's a lot of complicated work to understand and put together, a lot of failures along the way, but it really, at the center of it, is fun. These are adventures we're kind of setting out to explore and we don't know what we're going to find.

And so I think just by kind of framing the questions or kind of creating the space to explore and to not be sort of stuck that you need one answer or another or trying to fit one idea into something . . . we try to let the viruses or the microbes tell us what they've learned about our biology, about our evolution. And in some ways, that takes a little of the pressure off. We can sort of allow the experiments to tell us and to kind of follow our noses. I think that naturally makes things a lot more fun.

And then to get to your question, the trainees that have joined on these projects are all bringing their creative energy to the table. And that's not just sort of an added effect. It feels like a multiplying effect where as we're colliding as scientists and bringing our own curiosity, bringing our own creativity, really fun things can happen.

Interviewer: Well, thank you very much for talking today, and congratulations again on the award.

Dr. Elde: Thanks, Julie. Great to talk to you today, and looking forward to the science adventures ahead here at Utah.