Fundamental research investigates how viruses adapt to humans

Viruses are the primary cause of infectious disease worldwide. Because viruses evolve rapidly, we are exposed to a never-ending stream of new viral diseases or new variants of old viral diseases. It is unlikely that we will ever have a universal antiviral drug that prevents all viral infections. Dr. Claus O. Wilke, of The University of Texas at Austin, studies how viral outbreaks arise and develop, as viruses jump from animals to humans and subsequently adapt to the human population.

Dr. Wilke and his team of graduate students, postdocs, and collaborators work at the interface of evolutionary biology, bioinformatics, biochemistry, and biophysics. With their unique interdisciplinary expertise, members of the Wilke lab develop mechanistic insight into how viruses evolve and adapt to humans and animals. For example, Dr. Wilke and his team model the complex dynamics of human-virus coevolution to elucidate the circumstances under which viruses that infect other animals, such as mice or bats, might one day evolve to infect humans. Dr. Wilke and his team also develop novel modeling frameworks that describe how certain biophysical and biochemical properties of viral proteins constrain the evolution of viruses such as influenza, dengue, and West Nile virus. These models may be used to predict in which regions in viruses mutations are most likely to occur, thus facilitating the development of precisely-targeted vaccines.

In short, through applying a wide range of methods, ranging from statistics to protein biochemistry, Dr. Wilke and his team are generating novel and unique insights into how viruses evolve. These insights into viral evolution ultimately help with the prevention and control of viral infections.

Current research includes:

  • Fundamental principles of molecular evolution: Dr. Wilke and his team develop mathematical and computational approaches to study the evolution of viruses and other organisms. This work provides the fundamental, conceptual basis for more applied work.

  • Influenza virus: Understanding how and why the influenza virus changes each year is an important part of developing effective vaccination strategies against this virus. To address these questions, Dr. Wilke and his team are investigating the biophysical mechanisms that determine influenza evolution.

  • New World Arenaviruses: Arenaviruses are mostly present in South America and primarily affect rodents. On occasion, they spill into humans causing hemorrhagic fever, a major health concern. Dr. Wilke and his team are working to predict which viral variants pose a risk to humans and which do not.

  • Live attenuated vaccines: Live vaccines, such as the oral polio vaccine, often provide stronger immunization than other vaccination approaches. However, these live vaccines are just attenuated viruses, and they can on occasion revert to more virulent forms and cause vaccine-derived disease outbreaks. Dr. Wilke’s research is uncovering novel strategies to design vaccine strains that have a low risk of reversion.

Bio

Dr. Claus O. Wilke is driven by a desire to understand the fundamental principles of how things work. As a student, this desire led him to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in theoretical physics. During his graduate studies, Dr. Wilke became fascinated with evolutionary biology, and in particular with the problem of predicting how viruses and other organisms are going to evolve. Evolution is largely driven by the chance occurrence of mutations, and at first glance it looks like it should be impossible to make any predictions about evolutionary processes. However, the laws of statistics do apply, and therefore, it is possible to make useful predictions for these processes that are seemingly random and intractable.

Dr. Wilke is particularly interested in viruses, because they evolve rapidly in real time, and because their evolutionary dynamics have major ramifications for human health. In fact, every person on Earth is affected in some form by virus evolution. For example, we need to get a flu shot every year because the influenza virus evolves to escape the human immune response that has built up the previous year. Thus, through his training in theoretical physics, Dr. Wilke provides a unique perspective into biological problems that have direct implications for human morbidity and mortality.

Dr. Wilke received his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from the University of Bochum in Germany in 1999. He was a postdoc in the Adami Lab at Caltech from 2000 to 2005, where he received training in biological physics, evolutionary biology, and artificial life. Claus Wilke has authored or co-authored of over 100 scientific publications covering topics in computational biology, evolutionary biology, structural biology, virology, bioinformatics, population genetics, and statistics.

Website: www.wilkelab.org

Awards

2013 Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow

2011 Recognized as a Leading Texas Innovator by The Academy of Medicine, Engineering, and Science of Texas

2010 College of Natural Sciences Teaching Excellence Award, The University of Texas at Austin

2003 Los Alamos National Laboratory Director’s funded Postdoc (declined)

1996 Ruth and Gerd Massenberg award for excellence in physics, University of Bochum, Germany