Social evolution in viruses

All viruses must do two things: replicate their genomes, and then package those genomes inside virions, to infect new host cells. Both of these processes can be social, because both require gene products that can be shared with other viral genomes inside the same infected cell. For example, a replicase enzyme that replicates one viral genome can generally replicate other viral genomes of the same species, even if they did not encode the replicase enzyme themselves. The fact that viruses rely upon shared gene products means that viruses are social by their very nature.

Viral sociality opens the door to both cooperation and conflict. These interactions can have drastic effects on the fitness of viruses, with important consequences for infection outcomes, epidemiology, and emergence.

I use a combination of theoretical and empirical methods to study how these virus-virus interactions evolve, and their consequences for viral infections.

Theoretical work

My theoretical work is based in social evolution theory. Social evolution theory is useful because it provides a broad body of ideas that apply across life on Earth, from birds to bacteria, and now to viruses too. Viruses offer an exceptional opportunity to test and expand this body of theory, with viral biology providing a stream of evolutionary puzzles to explore. For more details about my theoretical research to date, please see my Publications page.

Empirical work

In my empirical work, I am interested in how viral social interactions play out in natural infections. Most existing work on viral social interactions is either theoretical, or has been done under laboratory conditions. I use within-host viral sequencing datasets to understand the role that viral social interactions play in clinical infections, and to test evolutionary hypotheses about viral social evolution.