Ingrida Olendraitė, a doctoral student at Cambridge University, an alumnus of Vilnius University, had little expectations that her meeting with an old acquaintance during Life Sciences Baltics will evolve to an international project together with the greatest minds in the field of virus research.
Last autumn Ms Olendraitė has participated in the Life Sciences Baltics forum for the first time. During the session of posters, she presented the topic “Polycipiviridae: a proposed new family of polycistronic picorna-like RNA viruses“. “I am strongly delighted by the fact that the forum attracted both the representatives of industrial and academic segments. I have never seen before a conference environment that is typical of industry because scientific conferences are mainly focused simply on presentations”, – says Ms Olendraitė.
More than 1.8 thousand life science experts, researchers, academics, business representatives, investors and start-ups from more than 40 countries participated at Life Sciences Baltic which took place on 26-27 September last year.
Different fields have been linked by project similarities
During two days of Life Sciences Baltics, the young researcher from Cambridge met many acquaintances from university years, including Dr Darius Kazlauskas who is a researcher at Vilnius University Life Sciences Centre. During the conversation, as usually, the colleagues shared between each other information about their occupation and areas of research that they are focused on. I. Olendraitė knew that the researcher at Vilnius University works with Eugene Koonin, a well-known US evolutionary and mathematical biology expert. During the session of posters, the student of Dr Kazlauskas had also made her presentation.
“When Darius started to talk about one project, I understood that our projects are fairly similar. We saw that knowledge of Darius of protein evolution and my scientific group’s knowledge of virology can be perfectly matched with each other”, – remembers Ms Olendraitė.
She first of all came up with an idea to invite Dr Kazlauskas to Cambridge where, during weekly meetings, presentations are made by the speakers, discussions are held, methods are reviewed, the participants are offered an opportunity to establish cooperation in the future with one or another research group. However, later, after the event, when both researchers were talking about the specific projects, Ms Olendraitė and Dr Kazlauskas agreed that Ms Olendraitė could become a part of the international project that is intended to create protein profiles for all viruses with RNA genomes, and help speed up works. E. Koonin is one of the initiators of this project.
Controlling viral diseases represents the objective of the project
“Viruses are divided into taxonomic groups that can be understood as family ties. During the project, we take a certain protein from all RNA viruses, then group them by similarity into “the children”, i.e. to a taxonomic level of the genus, and then we create so called profiles to show to what extent sequences of a certain protein vary in that group, and to what extent its structure remains clear, conservative. We will eventually place all profiles in the freely accessible database on the Internet in order the researchers could use them for their works”, – tells Ms Olendraitė.
Hundreds of hitherto hidden and unidentified viruses are discovered each year and usually researchers know nothing about such newly found viruses. Thus, the profiles developed could help in looking for new RNA viruses, and to compare, understand, and characterize them. “Nine out of ten deadliest viruses are the viruses that have RNA genomes. Vaccines have already been created against some of them, while creating vaccines for some of them is still impossible. So the general perception of viruses, their molecular biology and evolution, how they change over time, help to control such diseases and to prepare for them”, – says Ms Olendratė. Viruses that have RNA genomes and diseases caused by them include Ebola virus, rabies, HIV, flu, Dengue fever, and rotavirus.
“There is a lot of work to do because there is a very high number of viral protein types and even greater number of virus genera. There is a major challenge when it comes to deciding what similarity between “the brother” and “the sister” could serve as the basis for considering them not only as one family, but also as “the children”, i.e. as “the genus”, – explains the I. Olendraitė.
Dr Kazlauskas and Martas Krupovičius, a researcher at Louis Pasteur Institute and an alumnus of Vilnius University, work with viral proteins of more complex structures. I. Olendraitė studies RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, which is the most conservative of all proteins. This protein can be found in all RNA viruses. It is responsible for multiplication (replication) of genome and for preparation (transcription) of transcripts for protein production.
Getting out of own lab is beneficial
When working in this project, in spring Ms Olendraitė joined a group of bioinformatics at the Life Sciences Centre of Vilnius University for a month-long practice, and now she continues to do research remotely. According to the researcher, cooperation at the international level is very useful by reason of one fact alone that the principles of the daily work of researchers differ and joint projects help to better understand how different people work.
“I have experienced myself that stepping out of own well familiar environment and doing the same work but surrounded by different people is very useful. This not only enriches culturally but also helps acquire new skills”, – says Ms Olendratė.
The doctoral student at Cambridge University was also impressed in Vilnius by the fact that in a small community of researchers you can easily ask another colleague for help, can talk with scientists of various ranks, and can even freely access the Rector of the University.
Ms Olendraitė, however, admitted that even though a world-class scientific work is carried out every day in Lithuania, a science-filled environment can be better sensed at Cambridge University. “Cambridge offers a possibility almost every day attend at the meetings, lectures, congregations, followed by discussions. The lectures of Nobel laureates or of the representatives of their groups are organised quite often. You can choose to attend for self-education purposes at lectures on Psychology, Philosophy or Evolution for the general public. Many unofficial meetings with the colleagues are organised, and therefore we can share concerns between each other”, – tells Ms Olendraitė. She also emphasizes that the university and various scientific communities in the United Kingdom invest a lot in training and education, provide funds for conferences, traineeships.