David L Robertson

David L Robertson

Position: MRC Investigator and Head of CVR Bioinformatics, University of Glasgow, UK

Research focus: Viral origins, evolution, and host-interactions; mostly SARS-CoV-2 since the 2020

What do you love about viruses?
That despite their relatively simple genomes viruses contain the information to usurp host cells for their own replication and on top of this counteract host responses. Their dependency on host systems makes them interesting to study, eg, this tells us about both virus and host biology, and as viruses evolve very quickly this yields plenty of signal for evolutionary questions to be addressed.

On what topic could you give a 30-minute presentation without any preparation?
SARS-CoV-2 origins and evolution has been my favourite topic to talk about in the last few years. It’s been incredible to watch a new human virus evolve, eg, how few changes there were in most of 2020, the extent of convergent mutation and the emergence of VOCs, to have had so much genomic data available for analysis, characterisation of antigenic properties etc., and to compare it to the first SARS virus and broader set of SARS-related viruses circulating in bats. There’s clear similarity in their spillover associated with animals markets and this risk should have been better understood prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is your favourite way to spend a day off?
I’m a keen cyclist and enjoy long hilly rides whatever the weather.

If you could create a new invention, what would it be?
We need help, an invention, for digesting the high volume of data and information that now exists and delivering connected and pertinent information from disparate sources. Datasets are ever larger and more complex, preprints and the published literature is enormous, our collaborative networks global and communication systems such as email overwhelming, we’re reaching the limits of what individual humans can keep on top of.

What is the most interesting question or challenge in science that is still unanswered?
What puzzles me the most is how we can know and understand so much about the world, where it came from, the intricacies of molecular biology, how complicated life is, how to treat diseases, how we and life have evolved etc. but are unable as a species to organise ourselves in a way that makes the world a fair and sustainable place to live in for all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how powerful science is, eg, we had the virus genome very quickly, we studied the emergence of new variants, had multiple vaccines developed with unprecedented speed but this was in a maelstrom of dis and misinformation, politics interfering with public health responses, inequalities in vaccine rollouts etc. Going forward, how do we use objectivity and evidence better, ie, the scientific approach, to maximise rational decision making? In our current trajectory we’re getting worse at this, not better. What is it about humans that leads to collectively poor decision making?

What is the coolest thing about your research?
That there’s sufficient data in the public domain to be able to do meaningful computational research without the need for experiments. It’s great of course to work with experimentalists and help with data analysis but there’s also something very satisfying and rewarding about getting new knowledge and value from previously published datasets.

If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
This is more or less what we do. Being an academic researcher gives us a lot of freedom to work on interesting scientific problems. If I had unlimited resource (and time) combining studies of the molecular and evolutionary basis of disease, ie, genetic factors, somatic aspects/cancers/ageing, environmental factors, the role of the microbiome and the interplay of pathogens would I believe be very interesting and valuable for improving human health.