Shub Explains the Inexplicable
by Greta Petry
There has been a vast change in
the biological sciences since Professor David
Shub joined the University at Albany faculty 33
and a half years ago.
“Many of the fields we studied back
in the ’70s are not fashionable now,” he said.
Most of the scientists with whom he studied have
switched from their original research areas to
newer fields where research funding is more readily
Shub has adapted well to the changes,
using his “contrarian attitude” to ask new questions
in hypothesis-driven experiments. “I look for
the parts that don’t fit,” he said. “Many unanswered
New fields like genomics require
the collection of massive amounts of data.
“Understand that it took five years
to crack the genetic code for one bacterium. The
Human Genome Project, which was supposed to take
15 years, took fewer than ten. Now complex genomes
are being completed in one month,” Shub said.
With this tremendous amount of data
flooding the field, the need exists for the next
generation of trained Ph.D.s in biological sciences
who can do “small science” or hypothesis-driven
experiments to make the most of that data, he
Today Shub has a grant of about
$50,000 per year from the Northeast Biodefense
Center, one of eight NIH-funded Research Centers
of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious
Diseases Research, to study how the tables can
be turned on the anthrax bacterium.
“Viruses and the organisms they
infect have been co-evolving since the beginning
of evolution. It is an arms race between the host
and the parasite that infects it. All cells, even
bacteria like anthrax, have a series of viruses
that infect them. Why not try to design drugs
that mimic how the virus kills the bacterium?”
The UAlbany biologist, who was prominently
featured in a Q. and A. article in the November
issue of Current Biology,
was department chair for three years before being
succeeded by Al Millis in 2002-2003. In this regular
feature, the journal seeks out the views of a
prominent scientist on issues in science.
“I was really surprised and honored
to be asked,” Shub said.
This past academic year Shub taught
Genetics 212 for undergraduates and half of an
advanced undergraduate course, Molecular
Biology 312. The day he was interviewed
by Update, he was
also in the midst of preparing questions for a
Shub, who did his undergraduate
work at Columbia and earned a Ph.D. in biophysics
from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
is applying for NIH funding to resume his ongoing
work on introns and selfish DNA. Before becoming
chair, he was funded for work in this area through
just over $300,000 a year in grants from NIH.
In the Current
Biology Q. and A., Shub was asked: Why
have you spent your entire career studying bacteriophages?
[A bacteriophage is any virus that is parasitic
upon certain bacteria, disintegrating them.] Generally
speaking, it’s because he likes to examine unexplained
“I started this work in response
to Marlene Belfort’s and her colleagues’ published
results in 1984 and 1985, describing the discovery
of self-splicing mobile introns in phage T4,”
Belfort, a professor of biomedical
science at the School of Public Health and a member
of the National Academy of Sciences, studies the
biology of introns, dynamic sequences that interrupt
genes and disrupt the flow of genetic information.
Introns exist in almost all life forms and are
removed by a process called RNA splicing. Through
her research, Belfort seeks to answer questions
about how introns evolve and function, and explore
how they may be used in biotechnology.
In his response, Shub said, “Marlene
Belfort offered to collaborate on this totally
unexpected finding, providing my lab with a wonderful
problem that we have been exploring ever since.”
Shub delights in finding the piece
that doesn’t fit. “If it violates a rule, something
is wrong,” he said. This is what makes science
“The odd thing about bacteriophages
is how frequently they surprise us,” he told Current
Biology. “For example, the large subunit
topoisomerase gene of phage T4 (and some close
relatives) is split into two cistrons, one of
which requires the ribosome to make a 50-nucleotide
jump during translation.” Cistron is another word
for gene. Shub said it is “bizarre” for a ribosome
to behave in this manner and although the experimental
evidence is clear, “It should NOT be able to do
this.” Shub consulted with a leading scientist
in the field, who agreed with the validity of
the evidence, even though current ideas about
ribosome structure suggest it should be impossible.
“When something happens like that,
you gotta love it,” Shub said.
Over the years, Shub has seen the
number of professors in his department decline
from 36 to about 25 today, even as molecular biology
gained prominence over organismal biology.
“It is ironic that with the approach
of excellent facilities that allow us to attract
exceptional faculty and build the department back
to where it was, now budget constraints for the
University as a whole make that unlikely, at least
in the short term,” he said.
“The challenge is for planned growth
in good times and how to manage during an era
of shrinking budgets. I wish the next president
well in solving this problem because it is one
of the major issues the new administration will
face,” Shub concluded.