From Tree Hugger to Flu Fighter

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Centrepiece.

One Saturday morning in the spring of 2009, after only a year working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), John Barnes ’95 was called in to examine (sequence) the first three detected H1N1 viruses. The viruses would go on to trigger the 2009 flu pandemic.

A research microbiologist, he now heads the CDC’s Influenza Genomics team, working on the front lines to monitor seasonal flu viruses and to study animal flu viruses that potentially could lead to the next pandemic.Flu viruses have a unique ability to change quickly. To fully grasp the changes in influenza viruses and their impact on public health, it is important to look at the changes on a molecular level.

That is where Barnes’ lab comes in. Using advanced molecular technology, the lab provides a deeper, and at the same time broader, understanding of the viruses. His team sequences the genomes of thousands of influenza viruses a year looking for any early warning signs that, among other things, might indicate issues with how well the seasonal flu vaccine will work at protecting against the viruses.

“Historically speaking, flu is one of the deadliest diseases in the world,” he says. “Additionally, we are always monitoring and keeping a close eye on a few nonhuman flu viruses that have the potential to evolve and spread at pandemic levels.”

Barnes’ path to flu fighting was not an obvious one. At the University of Georgia, where he studied biochemistry and molecular biology, his doctoral dissertation focused on ethylene biosynthesis in conifer trees. While at Georgia, he set up a new lab and developed standard protocols using functional genomics.

The CDC recognized the transferability of skills in his genomic work with trees and in 2007 hired Barnes to build an influenza genomic-sequencing group from the ground up. Despite having no previous infectious disease experience, he was the group’s first hire. It is now one of the largest influenza gene-sequencing labs in the world in terms of the number of viruses sequenced.

A self-described “tech geek,” Barnes keeps up with the latest technology in applied molecular biology and next-generation sequencing to try to solve basic virology problems. His work contributes to understanding both seasonal and animal flu viruses with pandemic potential.

One current project is deployable next-generation sequencing for outbreak response. Recently, he and his team traveled to the Midwest to test a handheld device for sequencing influenza viruses detected in pigs. The new portable technology means sequencing can take place without a full lab. The team can thus identify viruses with pandemic potential while in the field and share the sequence data with the CDC so that it can be used to create candidate vaccine viruses even without the actual viruses themselves.

Barnes credits his nontraditional background and Centre with helping him learn to tackle complex questions.

“Centre’s curriculum helped hone skills not only on the scientific side [but] I really think subjects like poetry help with problem solving,” he says. “For example, when you’re breaking down a poem as a problem—looking at how a word might have alternate meanings—you’re looking at different ways of interpreting that data.”

Barnes’ creative solutions are receiving attention. In 2017 he earned the CDC’s prestigious Shepard Award for best manuscript on original research. With additional groundbreaking publications in the pipeline and novel ideas yet to be tested, John Barnes has established himself as a leader in fighting flu.

By Eli Painter ’94
January 10, 2018

By |2019-01-10T16:05:27-05:00January 10th, 2019|News|