Evolution of Disease Expert to Speak in Conjunction with Darwin Anniversary

Charles Darwin studied fossils, compared living species and scrutinized breeders' artificial selection of pigeons to develop his theory of evolution. An Ivy League biologist who will speak at the University of Houston April 2 relies on evolution in action in the laboratory – known as experimental evolution – to study the genetics and evolution of viruses.

Paul Turner, Yale University associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, researches viruses to determine how and why they evolve to cause disease. He will speak 4-5:30 p.m. in the Science and Engineering Classroom Building Auditorium, Room 100.

His talk is part of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Dean's Lecture Series and Darwin 2009 Houston, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of publication of "On the Origin of the Species." The lecture is free and open to the public.

The impact of the HIV-AIDS epidemic on people living in the United States motivated Turner to study virus evolution. Viruses such as HIV can evolve rapidly, he said, because they contain RNA genomes that readily mutate. Thus, RNA viruses provide efficient systems to study evolution in action, and results of such studies help scientists understand how deadly pathogens evolve.

Turner often performs basic research on non-dangerous viruses that serve as models for important pathogens. An example is the vesicular stomatitis virus, which does not cause disease in humans but provides an excellent model for the sometimes deadly Dengue virus and other viruses transmitted by mosquitoes. He also studies virus phi-6, which infects bacteria but has genetic properties similar to the influenza virus. Turner and colleagues recently found that the evolution of phi-6 on a novel bacterial host caused the virus to differentiate into a new species after only 15 days, separating from the gene pool of viruses growing on the original host.

In his talk, Turner will review recent research about how prior ecological history of viruses affects their future ability to cause disease. The research found that viruses that historically have evolved on multiple host species are more likely to emerge on new hosts, indicating a connection between current viral-host range and the likelihood of the future emergence of disease.

Turner also will present data that demonstrates why the adaptation of cell specificity can drive virus speciation and shows how creation of unsuitable virus-cell interactions may be harnessed as a new therapy to force viral extinction within an infected host.

Turner is a faculty member in the microbiology program at Yale School of Medicine, associate editor of the journal Evolution, and chair of the American Society for Microbiology Division R: Evolutionary and Genomic Microbiology. He received his Ph.D. from the Center for Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University and did postdoctoral work at the National Institutes of Health, the University of Valencia in Spain and at the University of Maryland, College Park.

His presentation is sponsored by the NSM Office of the Dean, the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professorate and the Houston-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. The NSM Dean's Lectures are designed to expose minority students to the possibilities of research and encourage them to pursue graduate studies in science and engineering.

For those who live outside of the Houston area or are unable to attend , NSM will webcast Turner's presentation at http://nsmit.nsm.uh.edu/webcast/vtv.html
and make it available afterwards at http://nsm.uh.edu/news-events/webcasts

For more about Turner, see:

For more about Darwin 2009 Houston, see:

WHAT:  Lecture: "The Evolutionary Ecology of Viruses"

WHEN:  4-5:30, Thursday, April 2

WHERE:  Science and Engineering Classroom Building (SEC), Room 100 www.uh.edu/plantops/images/pts_maps/uh_map__legend.pdf

Off Cullen Boulevard, Entrance 14

WHO:  Paul  Turner, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, Yale University