Fellows Interviews

Saphire EricaErica Ollmann Saphire

Erica Ollmann Saphire is a Professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science at The Scripps Research Institute. The goal of her lab's work is the improvement of public health, but their results also illuminate the transformations, functionalities and plasticity of proteins in general, with application to all of molecular biology.


Can you explain the significance of the VP40 protein in the life cycle of ebolaviruses? How is this protein able to undergo structural transformations at various stages?

Ebola and a lot of other viruses have very limited genomes. You and I, as humans, have 20,000 to 25,000 genes. Viruses do not have nearly that many. The viruses we work with have only four genes or only seven genes in their genomes. But – they are able to leverage the small number of protein products that result from those genes into a myriad of functions. There are lots of different ways that they can do this. The virus can hijack host proteins. The virus can encode separate proteins in the same amount of genetic material by using alternate open reading frames. But VP40 does something different – what it does dramatically expands what we understand about proteins in general. The central dogma of molecular biology is that a sequence dictates its fold which dictates its function. We can think about it as a one-directional highway that you can’t get off. What we see with VP40, is that it makes not one characteristic structure, but multiple different structures:  different structures at different times to perform different functions. Science has seen proteins with multiple functions before – sometimes they do different things when they exist in different organelles, or they have a binding site on top for one ligand and on bottom for another. But – this kind of dramatic rearrangement into a different form for a different function at each stage of the virus life cycle is remarkable.




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    Seventy-eight microbiologists were elected to Fellowship in the American Academy of Microbiology in January, 2010.  Fellows of the Academy are elected annually through a highly selective, peer-review process, based on their records of scientific achievement and original contributions that have advanced microbiology. There are now over 2,000 Fellows representing all subspecialties of microbiology, including basic and applied research, teaching, public health, industry, and government service. The new Fellows are as follows:
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