Two new recipients of the MacArthur fellowships -- the so-called genius awards that provide $500,000 each to recipients to help them pursue any projects they like -- will use their prize money to delve into the inner workings of some of nature's tiniest structures: viruses and stem cells.
Elodie Ghedin, a 44-year-old genomics scientist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, decodes the genomes of pathogens such as parasites and viruses to understand how they adapt to their hosts and evolve. To cite an example: By looking at the entire genome of the influenza virus -- studying one or two genes has been the norm -- she and colleagues saw that large numbers of flu strains can circulate in a single season.
Her team saw "that people can be infected with multiple flu lineages, which has huge implications because during co-infections the viruses can exchange genetic information," Ghedin said in an email. "This can lead to the emergence of new strains."
She said she planned to use part of her MacArthur grant to expand on her work on a parasite that can cause elephantiasis (extreme swelling of the lower torso) when it lodges in the human lymphatic system. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes and threatens hundreds of millions of people in developing countries, Ghedin said. She hopes to study the unique proteins that the parasite encodes and secretes into its environment to avoid rejection by its host, she said.