Dr. Anne-Ruxandra Carvunis is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the Department of Computational and Systems Biology. Dr. Carvunis identifies as an Evolutionary Systems Biologist and is resolutely interdisciplinary in her research philosophy. She opened her laboratory at Pitt in 2017 with the mandate to uncover the fundamental principles of change and innovation during the evolution of living systems. She is particularly interested in understanding what makes each species unique, including how novel species-specific genes emerge “from scratch”. A broad array of eukaryotic species and lineages are investigated in the Carvunis lab, but their current favorite model system is the budding yeast, whose genome was sequenced over twenty years ago but is still full of surprises.
Traditionally, we think of gene evolution akin to how we think of species evolution: a new gene has descended with modification from an ancestral gene. However, it has become clear over the past decade that completely novel protein-coding genes can also evolve de novo from non-genic sequences. How does this extraordinary transformation take place? How often does it happen? How do the new species-specific genes integrate the pre-existing cellular machinery? What are the physiological contributions of these young coding elements? These are only some of the exciting unanswered questions that Dr. Carvunis tackles in her laboratory.
For Dr. Carvunis, the quest to understand the origins of new genes started with an original hypothesis according to which de novo gene “birth” involves the existence and translation of transitory genetic elements called “proto-genes” (Carvunis et al, Nature 2012). Today Dr. Carvunis and her collaborators are actively pursuing research aimed at understanding the biology of these proto-genes and their evolutionary implications. Some questions require thinking deeply about what “function” and “novelty” mean in the genomic world (Keeling et al, eLife 2019), and how these concepts translate to computational methods for identifying novel sequences (Domazet-Loso, Carvunis et al, Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2017; Vakirlis et al, BioRxiv, 2019a). Other questions require directly testing hypotheses with experiments and following clues from genomics data – here again, surprises abound (Vakirlis et al, BioRxiv, 2019b).
Financial support for Dr. Carvunis’ research on gene birth has been generously provided by the NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00), the Searle Scholars Award, and most recently the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (DP2). Dr. Carvunis has also received a number of distinctions including a Medal of honorable doctoral work, the national L’Oreal-Unesco Award for Women in Science, and the Trailblazer award from the Ladies Hospital Aid Society. In addition to her research, Dr. Carvunis co-founded the Pittsburgh Center for Evolutionary Biology and Medicine (CEBaM) to help facilitate research and education in evolutionary medicine. She is also the Associate Director of the Pitt graduate program in Integrative Systems Biology (ISB), which now includes a special track in Evolutionary Medicine.
If you would like to learn more about gene birth, please turn to the extensive review of the field Drs Carvunis and Van Oss wrote and posted to Wikipedia (Van Oss and Carvunis, PLoS Genetics 2019). Have fun!