Monday, May 21, 2007

A perfect forum for the work I'm no longer doing!

As someone who previously worked on the co-evolution of primates with endogenous retroviruses, and whose recent career change required a rapid refresher course in immunology, I would like to extend a very warm welcome to a new journal - Cell Host & Microbe.

New scientific journals abound these days, and specialisation seems to be the rule - witness the collection of niche journals published by Nature for an example. Cell Host & Microbe might seem at first to service another narrow field of specialists. However, as the Editorial and Commentary that appear in the first issue explain, one of the aims of the new journal is to encourage interactions between the disciplines of microbiology and immunology, and to bring the resulting discoveries to a broad general audience. As stated by the journal’s editor, Dr. Lakshmi Goyal: “Just as microbiologists are appreciating the value of studying microbes in their host environment, immunologists are realizing the potential of studying immune responses in the context of a microbial infection. The time is right for a nexus between these two fields.”

Much of the research funding for the study of host-microbe interactions is understandably dedicated to infectious disease. Viral Genetics was one of my favourite undergraduate courses, and most of the viruses we studied were animal or plant pathogens. It was fascinating to learn how such short strands of nucleic acids (sometimes encompassing only 3 genes) can take over the entire cellular machinery, and often the entire host organism, for their own gain. This kind of interaction is often described as an “arms race” or, as portrayed by Dr. Goyal, “a complex game of chess.” The virus evolves to exploit any chink in the host cell’s defenses, while natural selection favours those hosts that are able to eliminate such weaknesses and / or mount their own attack against the invader. The evolution of drug resistance by viruses such as HIV illustrates that even cheating in the arms race, by recruiting synthetic chemicals to the host’s cause, can not prevent an escalation.

Of course, pathogenic viruses represent only one of the many possible host-microbe interactions. Diseases can be caused by bacteria, fungi or parasites, each pathogenic species having a unique and complex relationship with its host or hosts. And, as we are increasingly aware, many microbial species can form commensal or symbiotic relationships with their hosts, aiding in nitrogen fixation, digestion, and other cellular processes. Indeed, my own postdoctoral research focused on the adoption of retroviral sequences for use by the host genome, specifically in the regulation of host gene expression. Some excellent work by one of my former colleagues, Dr. Louie van de Lagemaat, suggested that adoption of these sequences may have driven the evolution of new functions for some human genes.

As you have no doubt gathered, my interest lies in the field of evolutionary biology, and I will subscribe to Cell Host & Microbe table of contents alerts expecting to read many excellent papers on the evolution of host-microbe interactions. Other fields will also benefit from this new forum, whether they involve treatments for existing and emerging infectious diseases, or a better understanding of our essential relationships with the microbes that populate our bodies.

Good luck, Cell Host & Microbe!

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