2020 MacArthur fellow credits ‘breathtaking intellectual energy’ at UChicago to launching his evolutionary genetics career

Nels Elde

When Nels Elde, PhD ’05 arrived at the University of Chicago in 1998 fresh from his hometown of Minneapolis, he found himself in an exciting research environment.

“UChicago has this incredible tradition of academics and intellectual horsepower, and I found an amazing crew of other graduate students. It was a great framework to start with,” said Elde, now an associate professor of human genetics at the University of Utah.

But it wasn’t just the university’s reputation as a research powerhouse that bolstered Elde’s scientific career. In the lab of his graduate advisor, Aaron Turkewitz, PhD, he also found the space to have fun.

“In Aaron’s lab, it wasn’t just great science, it was also creative science,” Elde said. “He encouraged us to follow our curiosity and have fun. Aaron is also a skilled artist and potter. It was a really inspirational, foundational lesson about mixing art and science that taught me how to center creativity in my work.”

As a PhD student in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at UChicago, Elde was researching the evolution of cellular mechanisms across different species. Now, 15 years later, his innovative approach to research has landed him a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, which provides a $625,000, no-strings-attached award to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.

Elde’s dissertation research was focused on understanding how distantly species evolved unique solutions to solve similar cellular problems, looking far out on the branches of the evolutionary tree to combine cell biology with evolutionary genetics.

“Virtually all mainstream cell biologists had previously assumed that the mechanisms cells are using to function are so complicated that they could have only evolved once, and then they must have been conserved in all species after that,” said Turkewitz, a professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at UChicago. “But Nels realized that there are times when completely independently, cells figured out how to solve some problem — not conserving the same mechanism, but solving the same problem twice in different ways.”

“So now instead of asking, ‘How did cells solve this particular problem?’, you could ask, what is the principle that cells are using to solve this problem? What do these solutions have in common, and how do they differ?”

Elde found that UChicago provided the perfect environment for exploring these big-picture questions about small-scale cells. “When I worked with Aaron, I was studying this pond critter, a cousin of the paramecium known as a Tetrahymena. We share a common ancestor that existed around a billion years ago, and we were using genetic tools to understand how this system could be a good model for understanding how our own cells operate,” he said. “But I discovered that some of the shared biology is actually quite different even though it looks almost identical, which got me wondering how species start to change after they diverge from a common ancestor.”

“I was a cell biologist with very little background in evolution, and I needed to start knocking on doors to get some help,” Elde laughed. “But here at UChicago, which is world famous for evolutionary biology research, and a little intimidating at the time, I was relieved to find all of these professors and students were very open to answering my naïve questions. That was really a turning point for my academic career: when I started to think across the boundaries of cell biology and evolutionary biology, thanks to the faculty — like Manyuan Long and Anna Di Rienzo — and their students just welcoming me with open arms.”

Currently an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Utah, Elde studies host-pathogen interactions and ways in which organisms evolve to better attack others or defend themselves. He is particularly interested in understanding how evolution drives rapid adaptations in hosts and pathogens.

“In the lab, it’s really hard to create experiments to reproduce the changes that occur over billions of years of evolution,” said Elde. “In my work today, I’m looking at changes that have occurred in the blink of an eye, in evolutionary terms — things that have happened in just 10 or 100 years. But there aren’t many categories of biology that move that quickly. One area where it is happening is in our interactions with microbes, and in particular, the infectious microbes that make us sick.”

“If you get entangled with a microbe, biologically speaking, where the microbes are replicating within the body, and the microbe might gain an advantage if it replicates in ways that make us sick, it sets up a recipe for rapid evolution. So now you can actually take viruses and set up experiments to see them adapt in real time over the course of weeks or months.”

But while viruses and bacteria can evolve quickly, sometimes in the course of just a few months, our immune systems can’t keep up using the same mechanisms. “I can’t just set up experiments with humans or other primates to see how our biology evolves — it would take thousands of years,” Elde said. “What we do instead is evolutionary analysis, comparing the genes of modern species and finding patterns of interesting differences, then looking backwards to reconstruct the evolutionary path from our most recent common ancestors to figure out which changes have biological meaning. And it turns out that our immune system is one of those places where things have been changing in big and consequential ways.”

Elde was surprised and disbelieving when he learned that he had been selected for a MacArthur Fellowship, but he is excited about what this means for his work, both as a geneticist and as a science communicator. He is the co-host of This Week in Evolution, a podcast about evolutionary biology.

“I’d like to use some of these resources to help tell the stories of scientists we haven’t heard from yet,” he said. “The scientists and who they are, and where they came from, all those different experiences they bring to their research, can really affect the science that’s being done, and how it’s reaching the public.”

In his lab, Elde plans to use the funding to bring some projects forward off the back-burner, to explore some ideas that might be otherwise difficult to get funded. “The wildest ideas you sometimes just don’t explore, because you think they’re probably not going to work, but this is an opportunity to dust those ideas off, shake them up, and see if there’s something to them,” he said. “One of the gifts of the MacArthur Fellowship is that it challenges you to kind of go off-roading a little bit in your scientific perspective, to explore those out-there kinds of questions.”

Future directions include exploring the evolution of the immune system in aquatic species, like fish, to better understand the origins of our own immune systems. “Some of our oldest ancestors looked more like fish than like humans,” explained Elde. “Many of the foundational advances in vertebrate immune systems happened in aquatic species. I think it’s really worth thinking about how our immune system compares to those of fish, especially as we’re now starting to understand that many of the same categories of viruses that affect humans can be found in fish, too.”

All of these new ideas for his research have grown out of his time as a student at UChicago, where he began to first blossom as a scientist. “I’m originally from Minneapolis, so coming to Chicago already was a fun and eye-opening experience,” said Elde. “When you put that into the framework of the University of Chicago and its incredible tradition of academics, the intellectual energy was just breathtaking.”

“And it’s never stopped influencing my research,” he continued. “The faculty and students there were more than just advisors — they’re lifelong friends and now my colleagues. UChicago has a history of major advances in evolutionary genetics, and it also continues to build into the future. I wasn’t just trained in research techniques while I was there; I was trained in how to pursue a scientific life.”

a version of this story previously ran on UChicago News