Karin Moelling on Viruses
  Karin Moelling     Biography    
Recorded: 06 Jun 2006

They are known as something to attack, make diseases, kill cells, kill a human being, or an animal, or a horse, but viruses have the best knowledge of our organism. They know the best minimalistic approach, how to deal with us, so we can learn from them an enormous amount about ourselves by analyzing the small viruses. That was originally the intention here with Jim Watson to do for understanding cancer, but now one can go further and say for understanding what’s going on in a cell. For instance, a virus developed a mechanism to help a cell not to die, so you think a virus kills. No, the virus developed a mechanism to prevent its whole cell to die, that’s what we call apoptosis. So the first anti-apoptosis gene was found in a virus and here in Cold Spring Harbor, I remember extremely well when they showed mechanisms first discovered with viruses like splicing that was shown here for the first time; I remember the electron microscope slide. Yesterday, we heard that there are maybe very novel herpes virus mechanisms, which regulate stability of nuclear RNA, that was reported, it has never been seen in the [unintelligible]. So, the viruses know how to react with the cell, to interact, and teach us very new things and they help the cells, they help survival, they help against UV damage, they help probably auto dissimulate our immune system because if you really have virus, no virus infection we may not have an immune system stimulus, so that it’s a sterile atmosphere. So we need the virus and very important our genome is made up out of about forty-percent residual retroviruses, they are probably leftovers from the older days, but they play around with our genome and make us versatile and probably allow us to adapt to surroundings, to new living conditions. So, how do you change your DNA? It’s pretty stable. So, we have jumping genes, we have information going in and out. Barbara McClintock, she was the person who first discovered it and it was a little premature because we, you know, couldn’t understand her. But, I have these mice things with all the colored mice on it because that’s the kind of thing we have in our own genome, and we need to learn what it is for, and it’s good for something. You turn on some genes, you sometimes turn off some oncogenes, some cancer genes, so the interplay between our genome and the viral genome is extremely informative and the viruses know how to make a cell feel better; it’s not only that they want to make it sick. Actually, most viruses don’t kill their hosts so there is a very good chance HIV will not kill mankind. There will be a time-point when, I don’t know how long it is going to take, when they have sub-users and both will survive, that’s sub-users have been rich in the primates already because the Simian virus in primates, all the ones which died have died and disappeared. But now it’s a very good sub-users. So hopefully that may be arising. Naturally, the last couple of years we had so much virology. I mean you had HIV, that shook up the world, because everybody was not looking at viruses as something important anymore then the next thing was sauce coming along. We had some cases in Zurich. So I am always in charge of the World Summit in Doubles. I am on alert with a helicopter service incase there is some bioterrorism so the viruses are very up in everybody’s mind for bio-safety. Now we have the Avian Influenza. Influenza is a very heavy disease and this is public concern but also how you treat it, how do you develop medicine. HIV vaccines, I tried to develop one I don’t think there is going to be one. So, the viruses are very in the focus of everybody, which is interesting.

Karin Moelling currently retired professor, still affiliated with the University of Zurich and the Max-Planck-Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin. She studied molecular biology at the University of Berkely, Califonia. She received her PhD at the Max-Planck-Institute for Virology at Tübingen in Germany. She did two post-doctoral research at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin (1973-1975), and at the Institute of Virology, University Giessen. In 1977 she received her Habilitation at the University of Giessen in Biophysics on "Replication of retroviruses".

From 1976 till 1981 she was the Head of Independent Research Group at Max-Planck-Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, Germany, on oncogenes, proto-oncogenes, cancer and HIV. In 1993 she became the Director of Institute of Medical Virology (IMV) and Full Professor at University of Zurich in Switzerland, she held this position till 2008. Between 2008-2009 she was Fellow of Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin and between 2008-2011 she became a Group Leader, Viruses and Cancer at University of Zurich.

Her research focus on retroviruses and cancer from molecular mechanisms to drug design. She is a Member of the European Molecular Biology Organization. She received several awards e.g. SwissAward in 2007, 4 prices: Czerny Price, Richtzenhain Price, Meyenburg Price and Ansman Price. She was Selected as Heisenberg Fellow in German Science Foundation.