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By Saey, Tina Hesman | Science News, December 29, 2012 | Go to article overview

Alt Science


Saey, Tina Hesman, Science News


After a day of computer programming and poring over genetic data, Pardis Sabeti relaxes her brain by writing rock songs.

Born in Tehran, Sabeti is a computational biologist at Harvard and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. She studies human evolution--past, current and future. Her cutting-edge work on the adaptations of humans and the microbes that infect them placed her among the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders for 2012. And when she's not in the lab, she's the lead singer of an alternative rock band in Boston called Thousand Days.

"When my brain is most active in science, I'm also most musically creative," she says. It's not that either music or science fuels the other, she explains, but rather that at times her brain enters a creative mode where both just flow.

If her publication record is any indication--Sabeti and her colleagues have already pushed out 13 scientific papers this year--her brain keeps busy by innovating.

Sabeti's team has crafted computer programs to find human genes that have been shaped by natural selection. Much of her work focuses on how humans have adapted to infectious organisms, so she looks for genes that have been altered to confer resistance to certain diseases. These kinds of genes offer a big survival advantage and tend to spread rapidly through human populations.

She has found hundreds of such genetic variants in people living in places where diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy and malaria are common. Understanding how these genes help fend off illness may eventually benefit people who were not born with such a genetic endowment, by helping to develop new drugs or other therapies.

In her newest work, Sabeti is also investigating the possibility that some variants in genes that affect hair follicle and sweat gland development might have given certain people some sort of evolutionary edge. …

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