Quick Q&A with NCBI’s Evolutionary Genomics Research Group

The Evolutionary Genomics Research Group strives to understand the evolution of life. No more and no less.

In this Quick Q&A with scientists who work in NLM’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), we’re pleased to introduce members of the Evolutionary Genomics Research Group.

This team of researchers focuses on the following areas:

  1. Empirical comparative and evolutionary genomics
  2. Exploration of the “phylogenetic forest,” a comparative analysis of phylogenetic trees for individual genes and identification of common trends between them
  3. Genome comparisons, particularly between relatively close genomes
  4. Classification and evolutionary analysis of protein domains and domain architectures
  5. Origin and evolution of viruses
  6. General physical principles of evolution

We asked them to tell us about their research in their own words and a bit about themselves.

Read on to find out who says his or her work is like a detective story, who is most excited about “the unknown,” who snuck into classes in the physics department, and who has an Erdös number of 2.

And then please feel free to like, comment, and share.

The scientists featured are:

Frida Belinky | Guilhem Faure | Michael Y. Galperin | Ayal Gussow | Sanjarbek Hudaiberdiev | Eugene Koonin | Anastasia Nikolskaya | Erez Persi | Igor B. Rogozin | Itamar Sela | Svetlana Shabalina | Sergey Shmakov | Yuri Wolf | Natalya Yutin

Quick Q&A with Eugene Koonin, Natalya Yutin, and Itamar Sela
Question Eugene Koonin, PhD Natalya Yutin, PhD Itamar Sela, PhD
 casual headshot of Eugene Koonin casual headshot of Natalya Yutin casual headshot of Itamar Sela
In lay terms, what is the focus of your NLM research?
The focus of my research at NLM is the study of the evolution of genomes, primarily those of microbes and viruses, and the identification of novel functional systems encoded in these genomes. Paleontologists collect fragments of bones, shells, and footprints to reconstruct ancient life forms that humans have never seen. I discover previously unseen, but ubiquitous, viruses using fragments of DNA in sequence databases; explore their diversity; classify them; and learn how they work. My research explores the evolutionary processes that take place in prokaryotic genomes. More specifically, I investigate how evolution shapes the number of genes and overall genome content of prokaryotes.
Why is your research significant, in your opinion?
“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” so without understanding how genomes evolve, we will never understand how organisms function. In addition, many of our findings can have important practical applications. The CRISPR-Cas systems that have recently revolutionized genome engineering are just one example of such a discovery. Being relatively large multicellular organisms, humans often forget about the hugely diverse world of unicellular life. They are too small to be seen with the naked eye, but they play a huge role in our lives, from ensuring the proper functioning of our guts to producing oxygen in the ocean.

Further down the scale lies the world of viruses that subtly control the fates of the cellular world, from regulating soil microbial diversity to causing human pandemics. We are just starting to realize the extent to which our lives are intertwined with the virus world, and my research expands the horizon of our understanding.

Deciphering the underlying forces of prokaryotic genome evolution is a key question in evolutionary biology. Applying large-scale evolutionary perspectives, including analysis of extensive genomic data, can expand our understanding of how cells operate.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? There was hardly anyone I knew personally who genuinely inspired me to start with. The writings of the great scientists of the 19th and 20th century, such as Charles Darwin, Erwin Schroedinger, J.B.S. Haldane, Linus Pauling, Stephen Jay Gould, and James Watson, definitely did. I like to do things that I do not know how to do. (If you know how to solve the problem, it is not a problem; it is an exercise.) The “aha moment” is addictive. Science provides endless opportunities for these moments of discovery. My high school physics teacher shaped the way I think about science and inspired me to pursue a career in academic research.
How did you get started in your career? By reading the works of the aforementioned great scientists at a very tender age, and then, by going into an experimental lab to study virus replication in my junior year at college. My high school passions—math, science, and scuba diving—resulted in a master’s degree in biophysics and a PhD in marine microbiology. Since modern microbiology is genome-centered to a large degree, I’ve developed an interest in working with genome sequences, and left “wet biology” for computational biology (bioinformatics). My first encounter with molecular evolution was during my postdoc in Prof. Tal Pupko’s lab at Tel Aviv University. Through my work with Prof. Pupko, I realized that combining quantitative methodologies and extensive genomic data is instrumental to address many fundamental questions in evolution.
What really gets you jazzed about science and research? We have the privilege to live and work in a golden age of science (at least in biology), when the publicly available data on genomes and beyond are finally becoming representative of the biodiversity existing on earth. It is possible to extract from those data an enormous amount of information on how life works and how it came to be, if only we apply the right methods and work hard. Making sense of data that, just before, were meaningless chunks of sequences in a four-letter alphabet, is a great intellectual stimulant. Doing it as a part of a leading-edge research team only makes things better. The persistent challenges that arise throughout research, along with the sense of innovation.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what else might you be doing? Never ever anything other than scientific research. Within science, though, I might pursue the experimental study of microbial evolution. I might have been a carpenter. I like to build or remodel, because it poses various problems to be solved. In my spare time, I love bike riding. If I were not here, I would be working in a bicycle shop.
Tell us something surprising about yourself. I have no real hobby, but I have finished more than 10 marathon races. Back in Ukraine, I wrote a book of non-trivial math problems for elementary school kids.

I speak four languages, and in each I feel like a distinct personality.

I played classical violin as part of an orchestra throughout high school.

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2 thoughts on “Quick Q&A with NCBI’s Evolutionary Genomics Research Group

  1. Pingback: Quick Q&A with NCBI’s Evolutionary Genomics Research Group – Heathy Casa

  2. Pingback: Weekly Postings | The MARquee

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