The earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand, around lunchtime. While not as powerful as the one six months ago, it caused more destruction, killing 185 people. The University of Canterbury, where I was working at the time, fortunately did not experience any injured staff or students and only minor damage to the buildings. My lab had to shut down for four months and it was a critical time for our research. Fortunately, a collaborator, John Thomas, offered my research team and myself an alternative for a month. Moving our team and setting up a temporary lab in Brisbane, Australia was difficult, but many companies were extremely supportive, providing equipment and even loaning us products. For example, Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT) quickly deployed a host of essential primers to complete our project on time – sending one set to my home in Christchurch, duplicates in Brisbane, and a third set waiting for me at the airport: all at no additional cost. This example and others have shown what a community can accomplish together in the face of hardship, much like the more recent global unison against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, like today, we did a great job together as a global scientific community. Suppliers have also contributed, for example, by improving access to various primer sets for SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing (important for detecting, tracking and studying genetic mutations and understanding the evolution of the virus and of its notable variants). The pandemic has driven the world to unprecedented success in the rapid development and deployment of an entirely new vaccine modality, at the same time revealing our common vulnerabilities and global interdependencies. Whether it’s an earthquake in New Zealand or an epidemic in China, we now understand better how strongly our seemingly disparate ecosystems are connected across the world. This connection is summarized in the ecosystems that my collaborators and I study by studying the diversity, demography, and evolutionary dynamics of viral communities in various ecosystems.
Specifically, my team and I use a combination of traditional techniques from virology, microscopy (including transmission electron microscopy), and molecular and cellular biology, in conjunction with next-generation sequencing (NGS) techniques, biology synthetic and bioinformatics to characterize viruses and understand their dynamics. We seek to understand the evolution and geographic spread of viruses by studying a wide variety of viruses in their natural habitat. Many of these viruses are not pathogenic to humans and may even be of benefit. This is because the vast majority of viruses that exist do not cause human disease and, as such, tend to be overlooked by researchers. However, these plant and other viruses can still tell us a lot about how viruses develop in general, as well as to inform studies of viruses harmful to humans. The impact of humans on viral ecology can also be revealed, for example, when plants harboring viruses are moved from one region to another, introducing new viruses to new geographic locations, which in turn subsequently influence the evolution of viruses by natural selection. Such an anthropic behaviours also extend to the movement of animals, which can also be infected with viruses. Some of these viruses can then jump from species to humans to cause zoonoses.
One NGS panel designed to sequence SARS-Cov-2 is IDT’s SARS-CoV-2 SNAP research panel, which has been adopted by Psomagen, a gene sequencing services company of which I have been a long-time user and which is now part of IDT’s Align Preferred Sequencing Provider program. IDT partners with some of the world’s most comprehensive genome sequencing service entities, which are aligned in their commitment to collaboration and determination to break down research barriers. Collaboration between vendors like IDT and Psomagen is essential, not only to help researchers like me cope with disasters like the Christchurch earthquake, but also to tackle global threats like the pandemic. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all connected in complex and sometimes subtle ways. As such, it is essential that we learn to work together, not only on seemingly diverse research projects that come together to give us a more complete understanding of our common ecosystem – from humans to viruses and beyond – but also to facilitate innovation in how we interrogate these biological systems and ultimately manage them as responsible stewards of our planet.