Inside HGG Advances: A Chat with Alyson Barnes

Posted By: HGG Advances

Each month, the editors of Human Genetics and Genomics Advances interview an early-career researcher who has published work in the journal. This month we check in with Alyson Barnes (@AlysonBBarnes) to discuss her paper “Human genetic diversity regulating the TLR10/TLR1/TLR6 locus confers increased cytokines in response to Chlamydia trachomatis”.

Alyson Barnes earned her PhD at Duke University and is now a scientist at Variant Bio.

HGGA: What motivated you to start working on this project?  

AB: Clinical manifestations among C. trachomatis patients are highly variable. For example, up to 80% of C. trachomatis genital infections are asymptomatic and if left untreated, can lead to severe clinical outcomes such as pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancies, and infertility. I was extremely interested in the role human genetics plays in these diverse clinical outcomes.

HGGA: What about this paper/project most excites you? 

AB: What excites me the most about this project is how infectious diseases shape the human genome. TLR1, TLR6, and TLR10 are targets of recent positive selection and lie in a region with Neanderthal introgression suggesting that these pattern recognition receptors have evolved throughout human evolutionary history. As community structures became more complex (for example, the shift from agriculture to industrialization), humans encountered different infectious diseases, and the immune system evolved to tackle these pathogens. As we see now with the COVID-19 pandemic, new pathogens will continue to add selective pressure to the human genome.

HGGA: What do hope is the impact of this work for the human genetics community? 

AB: I think it’s important for the human genetics community to acknowledge that science alone will not solve the chlamydia global public health crisis, and this is the case for many infectious diseases. Whereas the identification of biomarkers or a genetic predisposition to more severe C. trachomatis clinical outcomes may be beneficial to patients with access to routine medical care, good private health insurance, and high income, not every patient has access to these privileges.

HGGA: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a young scientist? 

AB: One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a young scientist is imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome and mental health are not talked about enough in graduate school or science, in general, and I believe it hinders progress. There will always be a better scientist or someone more productive. I was lucky enough to have a supportive mentor who encouraged celebrating the little wins in science just as much as the big wins.

HGGA:  And for fun, what is one of the most fascinating things in genetics you’ve learned about in the past year or so?

AB: I’m constantly amazed at the intricacy of the human genome and how little scientists actually know about it, as well as the speed with which new technologies are developed.

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