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

Read other profiles:
Guilhem Faure | Michael Y. Galperin | Sanjarbek Hudaiberdiev | Eugene Koonin | Anastasia Nikolskaya | Erez Persi | Igor B. Rogozin | Itamar Sela | Svetlana Shabalina | Yuri Wolf | Natalya Yutin

Quick Q&A with Ayal Gussow, Sergey Shmakov, and Frida Belinky
Question Ayal Gussow, PhD Sergey Shmakov, PhD Frida Belinky, PhD
headshot of Ayal Gussow  headshot of Sergey Shmakov  casual headshot of Frida Belinky
In lay terms, what is the focus of your NLM research?
My research explores the conflict between pathogens and their hosts and the biological systems employed in these conflicts. Discovery of novel prokaryotic defense systems, characterizing known defense systems. We were able to find completely new CRISPR-Cas proteins (proteins involved in prokaryotic, sequence-specific, anti-viral defense), and this result got a strong response among experimental research groups. I study how natural selection shapes codon bias in the beginnings and ends of protein-coding genes, thus influencing the regulation of protein translation. Another focus is on rare evolutionary changes that require two mutations to change between biochemically similar amino acids.
Why is your research significant, in your opinion? I find this topic incredibly intriguing and important to decipher. This line of study not only addresses fundamental questions in evolutionary biology but has potential practical applications, as we can harness and utilize some of these biological systems to our advantage. This gives us a better understanding of the evolution of prokaryotic organisms and describes their arms race with viruses. This can be used to find new ways to deal with pathogenic organisms. It has other great practical aspects, for example application of these machinery as biotechnological tools like the famous CRISPR-Cas. The proteins that we discovered have been found to be promising for specific RNA sensing, gene silencing, etc., and showed a great variation among CRISPR-Cas defense systems. Our basic understanding of selection on specific codons is very important, both to increase the fundamental knowledge in molecular evolution and potentially to better understand the interplay between mutation and selection, which can have many implications, for example in the study of human genetic diseases and cancer.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? My undergraduate adviser, Dr. Liran Carmel (a former NIH postdoc), inspired me to pursue a career in science. Underestimation of the complexity of the simplest living organisms. My way into this field started from a simple idea of modelling a living cell that stuck into my ignorance about the great and vastly unexplored biological world. My father wanted me to be a medical doctor. He took me to parks, to the zoo, and enrolled me in science enrichment programs for kids. I was captivated by nature ever since I can remember. I wanted to be a biologist since I was about 12 years old. I was also lucky to have good biology teachers during elementary school and high school.
How did you get started in your career? My very first position was in Dr. Liran Carmel’s group at Hebrew University. That was my first experience with computational biology and the start of my career. Applying computational algorithms to explore questions in biology, and specifically conducting research with potential medical implications, was attractive to me. I started my career as a software developer at Microsoft, then applied to bioinformatics school, studied in off-work hours, and ended up with my first paper, followed up by a successful PhD defense. During my BSc, I joined Prof. Dan Graur’s lab at Tel-Aviv University for a mini-project that got me interested in molecular evolution.
What really gets you jazzed about science and research? The thought that we are pushing the boundaries of knowledge beyond the point they have ever been pushed before. It’s like a good detective story—always knowing what to expect, but always surprised. The simplest events are enormously hard to detect among the living chaos, and obvious observations lead to puzzling conclusions. This makes it interesting. I am excited when I see a pattern that coincides with an understanding of what might be going on.
If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what else might you be doing? I’m a huge fan of video games. If I weren’t in science, I think I would consider being a video game beta tester and reviewer. Research in another field like physics or artificial intelligence. For me, it is hard to understand how you can do another thing while so many questions remain unanswered. If I hadn’t gone to pursue a career in science, I might have been a photographer or a graphic designer.
Tell us something surprising about yourself. I’m a certified yoga teacher. I have biked to work literally every working day for about three years. I have traveled to witness three full solar eclipses around the world:

  • Turkey 2006
  • China 2009
  • USA 2017

next page next page

3 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

  3. Pingback: 2018’s Seasons of Stories from NLM in Focus | NLM in Focus

Comments are closed.