Jonathan Stoye, a Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute, has been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in recognition of his work on genetic interactions between retroviruses and their hosts.
The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship made up of the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the UK and the Commonwealth. Fellows and Foreign Members are elected for life through a peer review process on the basis of excellence in science. There are approximately 1,600 Fellows and Foreign Members, including around 80 Nobel Laureates.
Each year up to 52 Fellows and 10 Foreign Members are elected from a group of around 700 candidates who are proposed by the existing Fellowship. Candidates must have made 'a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge' to be considered for Fellowship.
Jonathan said: "I am absolutely delighted, it is an enormous honour to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. I would like to thank all of my colleagues and collaborators, past and present, for their immeasurable support and contributions over the years. It's tremendously satisfying to be elected, I see Fellowship as a mark of recognition by your peers that you've done something worthwhile. My former headmaster once wrote that I was 'not of the highest class but tries hard and may make it in due course'. Rather crushing at the time but a spur that continues to drive me on. If he were alive today, I hope he would agree that I have now achieved something!"
Paul Nurse, Director of the Francis Crick Institute, said: "We offer our warmest congratulations to Jonathan on this recognition of his fantastic achievements. Jonathan was one of the first virologists to look at natural mechanisms of immunity, and his work helped to shape the field as we know it today. Congratulations once again to Jonathan for this well-deserved recognition of his outstanding research."
A retrovirus is a type of virus that inserts its genetic code into healthy host cells using a process known as reverse transcription, which makes the virus more likely to mutate. The most well-known human retrovirus is HIV-1, but our genes show evidence of many more infections going back millions of years. Retrovirus infections leave genetic footprints in our genome, called 'endogenous retroviruses', and these make up around 8% of the human genome.
Jonathan began his career by studying how endogenous retroviruses have shaped our genome and the health risks that they can pose. In 1989 he joined the National Institute for Medical Research (now part of the Francis Crick Institute), and began to examine the natural mechanisms that control retrovirus replication. In 1996 he cloned the first mammalian gene found to offer natural immunity to retroviruses, the Fv1 mouse gene.
"My work has been driven by a fascination with both the old and the new, looking back at our evolutionary history with a desire to discover new things," said Jonathan. "Vertebrates have co-evolved with retroviruses and other infections over millions of years, so we have developed defence mechanisms to protect ourselves while they have developed ways to get through. The well-known HIV-1 and HTLV-1 are only the most recent of a series of viruses that have infected humans and our ancient ancestors going back to the dinosaurs.
"When we cloned Fv1, we showed that such genes could effectively keep retroviruses under control. Understanding how these genes control retroviruses could help us to identify new drug targets and develop new treatments. However, we must bear in mind that a gene or process that protects against one thing could make us more vulnerable to another. There's a gene in macaque monkeys that protects them from HIV-1, similar to Fv1. The human analogue underwent a single change a long time ago, presumably to give resistance to some unknown virus, but this simultaneously made it ineffective at blocking HIV-1.
"It's impossible to predict what the next retrovirus affecting humans might be, but the more we understand about retroviruses the better prepared we will be. Virology can sometimes feel like a niche field these days but it remains a highly worthwhile discipline, so I hope that my election to the Royal Society might encourage others to pursue a career in virology."