evolgen

Seed’s going buck-nutty for the 25th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic, including a new blog covering the 16th International AIDS Conference. This week’s Ask A Science Blogger also deals with the disease:

To what extent do you worry about AIDS, either with respect to yourself, your children, or the world at large?

I am the youngest of the ScienceBlogs bloggers (about as old as the epidemic itself), and I cannot remember a world without AIDS. Aside from not going in without cover, how has the AIDS epidemic changed my behavior? The answer involves both a personal anecdote and some research in my field.

I had major surgery a few weeks after I was born, which required blood transfusions. This was the early 1980s when AIDS was an unknown risk of transfusion and blood was not screened for HIV. If I hadn’t had the surgery, I would have died within a couple of months of being born — yeah, I shouldn’t be alive. But I also could have contracted a fatal disease from the procedure that saved my life. Luckily, I am HIV free and pretty damn healthy to boot; I’ve spent a single night in the hospital in the 25 years since my near death experience (which turned out to be a really bad case of stomach cramps from some nasty Chinese food).

Now I study evolutionary genetics, and the HIV genome is a popular molecule in this field. The evolution of the HIV genome has revealed insights into adaptive evolution and epistasis. There is also a 32 base pair deletion of a membrane protein segregating in European populations which confers resistance to HIV infection. This polymorphism can teach us about how a beneficial allele can spread through a population and how selection and population structure can maintain a polymorphism.