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evolutionary biology

An Evolutionary Guide to New Immunotherapies

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Credit: Dave Titensor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

One of the best ways to learn how something works is to understand how it’s built. How it came to be. That’s true not only if you play a guitar or repair motorcycle engines, but also if you study the biological systems that make life possible. Evolutionary studies, comparing the development of these systems across animals and organisms, are now leading to many unexpected biological discoveries and promising possibilities for preventing and treating human disease.

While there are many evolutionary questions to ask, Brenda Bass, a distinguished biochemist at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, has set her sights on a particularly profound one: How has innate immunity evolved through the millennia in all living things, including humans? Innate immunity is the immune system’s frontline defense, the first responders that take control of an emerging infectious situation and, if needed, signal for backup.

Exploring the millennia for clues about innate immunity takes a special team, and Bass has assembled a talented one. It includes her Utah colleague Nels Elde, a geneticist; immunologist Dan Stetson, University of Washington, Seattle; and biochemist Jane Jackman, Ohio State University, Columbus.

With a 2020 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, this hard-working team will embark on studies looking back at 450 million years of evolution: the point in time when animals diverged to develop very distinct methods of innate immune defense [1]. The team members hope to uncover new possibilities encoded in the innate immune system, especially those that might be latent but still workable. The researchers will then explore whether their finds can be repurposed not only to boost our body’s natural response to external threats but also to internal threats like cancer.

Bass brings a unique perspective to the project. As a postdoc in the 1980s, she stumbled upon a whole new class of enzymes, called ADARs, that edit RNA [2]. Their function was mysterious at the time. It turns out that ADARs specifically edit a molecule called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). When viruses infect cells in animals, including humans, they make dsRNA, which the innate immune system detects as a sign that a cell has been invaded.

It also turns out that animal cells make their own dsRNA. Over the years, Bass and her lab have identified thousands of dsRNAs made in animal cells—in fact, a significant number of human genes produce dsRNA [3]. Also interesting, ADARs are crucial to marking our own dsRNA as “self” to avoid triggering an immune response when we don’t need it [4].

Bass and others have found that evolution has produced dramatic differences in the biochemical pathways powering the innate immune system. In vertebrate animals, dsRNA leads to release of the immune chemical interferon, a signaling pathway that invertebrate species don’t have. Instead, in response to detecting dsRNA from an invader, and repelling it, worms and other invertebrates trigger a gene-silencing pathway known as RNA interference, or RNAi.

With the new funding, Bass and team plan to mix and match immune strategies from simple and advanced species, across evolutionary time, to craft an entirely new set of immune tools to fight disease. The team will also build new types of targeted immunotherapies based on the principles of innate immunity. Current immunotherapies, which harness a person’s own immune system to fight disease, target infections, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. But they work through our second-line adaptive immune response, which is a biological system unique to vertebrates.

Bass and her team will first hunt for more molecules like ADARs: innate immune checkpoints, as they refer to them. The name comes from a functional resemblance to the better-known adaptive immune checkpoints PD-1 and CTLA-4, which sparked a revolution in cancer immunotherapy. The team will run several screens that sort molecules successful at activating innate immune responses—both in invertebrates and in mammals—hoping to identify a range of durable new immune switches that evolution skipped over but that might be repurposed today.

Another intriguing direction for this research stems from the observation that decreasing normal levels of ADARs in tumors kickstarts innate immune responses that kill cancer cells [5]. Along these lines, the scientists plan to test newly identified immune switches to look for novel ways to fight cancer where existing approaches have not worked.

Evolution is the founding principle for all of biology—organisms learn from what works to improve their ability to survive. In this case, research to re-examine such lessons and apply them for new uses may help transform bygone evolution into a therapeutic revolution!


[1] Evolution of adaptive immunity from transposable elements combined with innate immune systems. Koonin EV, Krupovic M. Nat Rev Genet. 2015 Mar;16(3):184-192.

[2] A developmentally regulated activity that unwinds RNA duplexes. Bass BL, Weintraub H. Cell. 1987 Feb 27;48(4):607-613.

[3] Mapping the dsRNA World. Reich DP, Bass BL. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2019 Mar 1;11(3):a035352.

[4] To protect and modify double-stranded RNA – the critical roles of ADARs in development, immunity and oncogenesis. Erdmann EA, Mahapatra A, Mukherjee P, Yang B, Hundley HA. Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2021 Feb;56(1):54-87.

[5] Loss of ADAR1 in tumours overcomes resistance to immune checkpoint blockade. Ishizuka JJ, Manguso RT, Cheruiyot CK, Bi K, Panda A, et al. Nature. 2019 Jan;565(7737):43-48.


Bass Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Elde Lab (University of Utah)

Jackman Lab (Ohio State University, Columbus)

Stetson Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)

Bass/Elde/Jackman/Stetson Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute

Genomic Study Points to Natural Origin of COVID-19

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COVID-19 Update

No matter where you go online these days, there’s bound to be discussion of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Some folks are even making outrageous claims that the new coronavirus causing the pandemic was engineered in a lab and deliberately released to make people sick. A new study debunks such claims by providing scientific evidence that this novel coronavirus arose naturally.

The reassuring findings are the result of genomic analyses conducted by an international research team, partly supported by NIH. In their study in the journal Nature Medicine, Kristian Andersen, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA; Robert Garry, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans; and their colleagues used sophisticated bioinformatic tools to compare publicly available genomic data from several coronaviruses, including the new one that causes COVID-19.

The researchers began by homing in on the parts of the coronavirus genomes that encode the spike proteins that give this family of viruses their distinctive crown-like appearance. (By the way, “corona” is Latin for “crown.”) All coronaviruses rely on spike proteins to infect other cells. But, over time, each coronavirus has fashioned these proteins a little differently, and the evolutionary clues about these modifications are spelled out in their genomes.

The genomic data of the new coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 show that its spike protein contains some unique adaptations. One of these adaptations provides special ability of this coronavirus to bind to a specific protein on human cells called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE2). A related coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in humans also seeks out ACE2.

Existing computer models predicted that the new coronavirus would not bind to ACE2 as well as the SARS virus. However, to their surprise, the researchers found that the spike protein of the new coronavirus actually bound far better than computer predictions, likely because of natural selection on ACE2 that enabled the virus to take advantage of a previously unidentified alternate binding site. Researchers said this provides strong evidence that that new virus was not the product of purposeful manipulation in a lab. In fact, any bioengineer trying to design a coronavirus that threatened human health probably would never have chosen this particular conformation for a spike protein.

The researchers went on to analyze genomic data related to the overall molecular structure, or backbone, of the new coronavirus. Their analysis showed that the backbone of the new coronavirus’s genome most closely resembles that of a bat coronavirus discovered after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the region that binds ACE2 resembles a novel virus found in pangolins, a strange-looking animal sometimes called a scaly anteater. This provides additional evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 almost certainly originated in nature. If the new coronavirus had been manufactured in a lab, scientists most likely would have used the backbones of coronaviruses already known to cause serious diseases in humans.

So, what is the natural origin of the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic? The researchers don’t yet have a precise answer. But they do offer two possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, as the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS, which arose from cat-like civets; and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels.

The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease. Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.

Either way, this study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19. And that’s a good thing because it helps us keep focused on what really matters: observing good hygiene, practicing social distancing, and supporting the efforts of all the dedicated health-care professionals and researchers who are working so hard to address this major public health challenge.

Finally, next time you come across something about COVID-19 online that disturbs or puzzles you, I suggest going to FEMA’s new Coronavirus Rumor Control web site. It may not have all the answers to your questions, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction in helping to distinguish rumors from facts.

[1] The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF. Nat Med, 17 March 2020. [Epub ahead of publication]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Andersen Lab (Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA)

Robert Garry (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)

Coronavirus Rumor Control (FEMA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute

Finding Brain Circuits Tied to Alertness

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Everybody knows that it’s important to stay alert behind the wheel or while out walking on the bike path. But our ability to react appropriately to sudden dangers is influenced by whether we feel momentarily tired, distracted, or anxious. How is it that the brain can transition through such different states of consciousness while performing the same routine task, even as its basic structure and internal wiring remain unchanged?

A team of NIH-funded researchers may have found an important clue in zebrafish, a popular organism for studying how the brain works. Using a powerful new method that allowed them to find and track brain circuits tied to alertness, the researchers discovered that this mental state doesn’t work like an on/off switch. Rather, alertness involves several distinct brain circuits working together to bring the brain to attention. As shown in the video above that was taken at cellular resolution, different types of neurons (green) secrete different kinds of chemical messengers across the zebrafish brain to affect the transition to alertness. The messengers shown are: serotonin (red), acetylcholine (blue-green), and dopamine and norepinephrine (yellow).

What’s also fascinating is the researchers found that many of the same neuronal cell types and brain circuits are essential to alertness in zebrafish and mice, despite the two organisms being only distantly related. That suggests these circuits are conserved through evolution as an early fight-or-flight survival behavior essential to life, and they are therefore likely to be important for controlling alertness in people too. If correct, it would tell us where to look in the brain to learn about alertness not only while doing routine stuff but possibly for understanding dysfunctional brain states, ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Out of Africa: DNA Analysis Points to a Single Major Exodus

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View of Africa from space

Credit: NASA

If you go back far enough, the ancestors of all people trace to Africa. That much is clear. We are all Africans. But there’s been considerable room for debate about exactly when and how many times modern humans made their way out of Africa to take up residence in distant locations throughout the world. It’s also unclear what evolutionary or other factors might have driven our human ancestors to set off on such a perilous and uncertain journey (or journeys) in the first place.

By analyzing 787 newly sequenced complete human genomes representing more than 280 diverse and understudied populations, three new studies—two of which received NIH funding—now help to fill in some of those missing pages of our evolutionary history. The genomic evidence suggests that the earliest human inhabitants of Eurasia came from Africa and began to diverge genetically at least 50,000 years ago. While the new studies differ somewhat in their conclusions, the findings also lend support to the notion that our modern human ancestors dispersed out of Africa primarily in a single migratory event. If an earlier and ultimately failed voyage occurred, it left little trace in the genomes of people alive today.

Gene Duplication: New Analysis Shows How Extra Copies Split the Work

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Word cloudThe human genome contains more than 20,000 protein-coding genes, which carry the instructions for proteins essential to the structure and function of our cells, tissues and organs. Some of these genes are very similar to each other because, as the genomes of humans and other mammals evolve, glitches in DNA replication sometimes result in extra copies of a gene being made. Those duplicates can be passed along to subsequent generations and, on very rare occasions, usually at a much later point in time, acquire additional modifications that may enable them to serve new biological functions. By starting with a protein shape that has already been fine-tuned for one function, evolution can produce a new function more rapidly than starting from scratch.

Pretty cool! But it leads to a question that’s long perplexed evolutionary biologists: Why don’t duplicate genes vanish from the gene pool almost as soon as they appear? After all, instantly doubling the amount of protein produced in an organism is usually a recipe for disaster—just think what might happen to a human baby born with twice as much insulin or clotting factor as normal. At the very least, duplicate genes should be unnecessary and therefore vulnerable to being degraded into functionless pseudogenes as new mutations arise over time

An NIH-supported team offers a possible answer to this question in a study published in the journal Science. Based on their analysis of duplicate gene pairs in the human and mouse genomes, the researchers suggest that extra genes persist in the genome because of rapid changes in gene activity. Instead of the original gene producing 100 percent of a protein in the body, the gene duo quickly divvies up the job [1]. For instance, the original gene might produce roughly 50 percent and its duplicate the other 50 percent. Most importantly, organisms find the right balance and the duplicate genes can easily survive to be passed along to their offspring, providing fodder for continued evolution.