Dr Amr Aswad
"The genetic information of all living things – or ‘the genome’ – encodes the blueprints for that organism, as well as the means by which it will operate throughout its life. A complete copy of this genome is found in each cell, including in the sperm and egg cells that go onto create the next generation. When an organism is infected by a virus (e.g. the common cold, ebola, or HIV), this parasitic creature hijacks some cells to merge their genetic information with the genome of its host. In doing so, it reprograms the cell to stop doing its normal job and start making viruses instead. In some rare cases, these infections can happen in sperm or egg cells, meaning that they become accidentally inherited along with the rest of an animal's genes, being maintained for millions of years.
"Retrospectively, we can examine the genomes of living things (including our own) to identify these tiny footprints of ancient infections. These bits of ancient viral genome can act as a 'window into the past'. They help us reconstruct what viruses once looked like. This is very useful indeed because unlike other organisms, viruses do not leave behind any fossils for us to draw conclusions from. Up to eight per cent of the human genome is composed of these ancient viruses, which act as a historical archive of viruses that have long since gone extinct.
"Part of my research involves finding ways to identify ancient viruses. Like dinosaur bones, many of these viral traces are degraded and barely recognizable. I am also particularly excited about researching what possible influences these relics might have on our biology, (whether good or bad!) For example, we know that in some cases, they perform very important functions linked to pregnancy – but conversely, some people believe that they could contribute to diseases such as cancer. My most recent publication was an investigation into the history of monkey viruses, where I discovered an ancient family of unique viruses that may have crossed over from rodents."