The hunter of genetic fossils

The hunter of genetic fossils

Aris Katzourakis is a Biologist at Oxford University. As an evolutionary biologist and paleovirologist, the researcher of the Zoology Department of Oxford University, has been working during the last six years as a hunter of genetic fossils, as scientists studying areas of defunct human DNA are called. Actually, he has made a major discovery on the research and treatment of AIDS.

His research interests include viral evolution and genome evolution. This research is primarily focussed on studying the long term evolutionary biology of viruses. This is facilitated by the discovery of a rich genomic fossil record of ancient viral sequences within the genomes of their hosts, leading to the emerging field of paleovirology.

Paleovirological techniques can be applied to endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) and endogenous viral elements (EVEs) more generally. For example, this can include using genomic sequence data to infer the evolutionary biology of retroviruses and their association with their vertebrate host genomes and immune responses, as well as modelling the dynamics of this evolutionary process.

Katzourakis studied Biology at Imperial College and received his PhD in evolutionary biology from Oxford University, where he currently works as a Lecturer.

He became widely known in 2007, following the publication by the top scientific magazine PNAS of his research on RELIK, a lentivirus (a subcategory of retroviruses associated with HIV) that he discovered in the genome of the rabbit. He estimated RELIK to have originated at least 7 million years ago and discovered that the virus was endogenous, paving the way to a completely new outlook on viruses like AIDS. Until then, the dominant perspective in biology estimated the age of retroviruses at 1 million years maximum.

“We are aware that the AIDS virus was transferred from apes to humans in Africa during the decade between 1920 and 1930 via a transformation process that made it pathogenic in our bodies. We are also aware that certain racial groups on the same continent carry an unknown treatment mechanism against the virus in their immune system that helps them suffer from the disease in slower rates than the rest of us”, he explained in a former interview.

According to a New York Times article, Katzourakis’s work can lead to innovative prevention methods of a possible future mutation of these viruses, equivalent to the HIV virus, and of an unknown pathogen for the human.

“Focusing on these studies, we discovered that complex retroviruses exist and have been accompanying us from the era of the dinosaurs, far more years than what we used to believe until 2008”, Katzourakis remarked.