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Malaghan visiting researcher: Prof Jemma Geoghegan

18 June 2024

Professor Jemma Geoghegan is an evolutionary virologist from the University of Otago. Her research takes a deep dive into the unseen world of viruses that are unique to Aotearoa New Zealand. She is investigating how they evolve, establish themselves in new hosts, and ultimately emerge as infectious diseases. She recently visited the Malaghan Institute to talk about her research.

“New Zealand provides a unique, natural laboratory for researching viral evolution. Geographically isolated for millions of years, the country's native species have co-evolved with a distinct set of viruses, potentially harbouring novel strains unseen elsewhere,” says Professor Geoghegan.

“This isolation offers an undisturbed ecological setting to study viral evolution in its purest form.”

Professor Geoghegan's team uses this unique environment to investigate the vast and previously unexplored diversity of viruses in New Zealand's wildlife. They do this using metagenomics, a powerful technique for analysing genetic material of entire viral families. 

Another part of Professor Geoghegan’s research investigates how these viruses evolved in both native and introduced species. A crucial aspect of emerging infectious diseases is host-jumping, the process by which a virus transmits to a new species. 

By studying the interactions between native and introduced species in New Zealand, we aim to identify the factors that enable host-jumping,” says Professor Geoghegan.

The impact of Professor Geoghegan's research extends beyond the borders of New Zealand. As the Covid-19 pandemic starkly reminded us, new and emerging viruses pose a constant threat to global health. By uncovering potential disease-causing viruses in wildlife and identifying the drivers of viral evolution and host-jumping, this research could provide crucial insights for global pandemic preparedness.