By Joe Rojas-Burke
As immune defenses evolve to fight viruses and bacteria, these pathogens evolve to overcome immune defenses. Wayne Potts studies the genetics of this coevolution, but his work reaches beyond the conventional boundaries of the field. Most famously, Potts was first to show that the mate choices of wild mice are influenced by the immune system’s major histocompatibility complex genes – a finding widely contested at first, but now confirmed as a way humans and many other species provide their offspring with a superior immune system and avoid inbreeding. This ground-breaking work “heralded the beginning of an entire new research field,” one colleague says.
Another praises his “imaginative out-of-the-box thinking, rigorous execution of decisive experiments and critical evaluation of implications.” Potts pioneered the use of semi-natural populations of animals to more sensitively detect health performance deficits caused by inbreeding and he has used this method to characterize the hidden toxicities of sugar and widely used pharmaceuticals. He was the first to show experimentally that pathogens adapt to specific mammalian genotypes, which reduces their ability to infect other host genotypes, thus reducing their overall virulence.
Potts earned a bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University, master’s degree at Utah State University and doctorate at the University of Washington. He joined the University of Utah faculty in 1996 and was named full professor in 2003.
Joe Rojas-Burke is a senior science writer at University Marketing and Communications. If you have an interesting story idea, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.