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U of U Health evolutionary geneticist Nels Elde named HHMI Investigator

The designation is Elde’s second prestigious accolade in less  than a year. HHMI investigators are a select group of researchers pushing the bounds of knowledge in biomedical research.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah Health

Nels Elde

Nels Elde, a University of Utah Health evolutionary geneticist who studies how interactions between viruses and hosts can lead to cellular changes in the host that help prevent infection, has been named a 2021 Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator. The highly regarded designation is given to a select group of researchers believed to be pushing the bounds of knowledge in biomedical research.

An associate professor in the Department of Human Genetics, Elde is among 33 scientists at 21 research institutions nationwide selected as HHMI investigators. The new investigators, selected from among more than 800 applicants, will each receive about $9 million over the next seven years to delve deeply into unexplored aspects of biology, human health and disease.

The designation is Elde’s second prestigious accolade in less  than a year. In October 2020, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a “genius grant.”

“Being selected as a HHMI investigator makes me feel like a kid in a scientific candy store,” Elde says. “It’s just an amazing opportunity and responsibility. It’s an incredible moment knowing that I’m joining a community of interesting, innovative scientists who have been given the time, resources and freedom to explore uncharted scientific territory.”

HHMI selected the new investigators because they are thoughtful, rigorous scientists who have the potential to make transformative discoveries over time, says David Clapman, HHMI’s vice president and chief scientific officer. “We encourage investigators to follow new directions, learn new methods and think in new ways,” he says. “This could lead to scientific breakthroughs that benefit humanity.”

In all, HHMI will invest at least $300 million in these new investigators, who will join the Institute’s existing Investigator community of about 250 scientists, including U scientists Bradley R Cairns, professor and chair of oncological sciences and Huntsman Cancer Institute investigator; Erik M. Jorgensen, professor of biology; and Jared Rutter, professor of biochemistry.

To date, 32 current or former HHMI investigators have won the Nobel Prize, including the U’s Mario R. Capecchi, distinguished professor of human genetics and biology.

“Nels’ work is highly original,” says Lynn Jorde, chair of the Department of Human Genetics at U of U Health. He has a real knack for identifying great research questions, and—just as importantly—he’s been able to get the answers.  We are indeed lucky to have him here at the University of Utah.”

Since joining the U in 2011, Elde has studied how viruses drive many genetic changes in animals that occur as they evolve new ways to survive microbial infections. Studying how these virus-animal conflicts have changed biology is providing insights into how the body’s defenses, including the immune system, are built and how they work.

In particular, his lab has discovered how interactions with microbes could have a wide-ranging influence on a cell’s basic functions. This emerging view, Elde says, potentially could disrupt textbook concepts in genetics and cell biology.

Elde and his research team have discovered a genetic mutation in mice and monkeys that illustrates such a maneuver. A duplicated gene encodes an altered protein that delays the process cells use to bud off pieces of their membranes. The change interferes with the ability of viruses such as HIV and Ebola to co-opt this process, exiting an infected cell so that it can go on to infect other cells. Elde believes this represents a new type of immunity that arises quickly to protect against short-lived threats.

“In science, there are pressures to do things that feel like the next logical step,” Elde says. “But science often has these unpredictable leaps. By going into new, uncomfortable places that are unpredictable and not necessarily the next logical steps, we might be able to leap forward in a single bound. That’s my aim, and I think it’s a good match with HHMI’s mission.”

In addition to being named an HHMI Investigator and a MacArthur Fellow, Elde has earned numerous honors, including being selected as a Pew Scholar in the Biosciences, Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator, Kavli Foundation Fellow and the Mario R. Capecchi Endowed Chair in Genetics from 2011-2017.

Research from his lab has been highlighted by The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wired Magazine, and National Geographic.

HHMI is the largest private biomedical research institution in the United States. Its scientists make discoveries that advance human health and the fundamental understanding of biology. The institute also invests in transforming science education into a creative, inclusive endeavor that reflects the excitement of research. HHMI headquarters are located in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.


University of Utah Health provides leading-edge and compassionate care for a referral area that encompasses Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, western Colorado and much of Nevada. A hub for health sciences research and education in the region, U of U Health touts a $408 million research enterprise and trains the majority of Utah’s physicians and health care providers at its Colleges of Health, Nursing and Pharmacy and Schools of Dentistry and Medicine. With more than 20,000 employees, the system includes 12 community clinics and five hospitals. U of U Health is recognized nationally as a transformative health care system and regionally as a provider of world-class care.