Virus expert Akhtar Ali wins Fulbright research award

Virus expert wins Fulbright award

Behind the glass door of a restricted laboratory in Oliphant Hall, Akhtar Ali, associate professor of virology, is conducting exclusive research in virus prevention and treatment. He is the only biologist in the state to study animal, human and plant viruses.

“Viruses are usually considered the ‘bad guys,’ but all viruses aren’t bad,” Ali said. “Studies usually focus on how viruses affect plants or humans, but my research looks at the complete opposite—how to use a virus as a biological agent to control fungal diseases.”

Ali holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in plant pathology from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Agricultural University in Peshawar, Pakistan, along with a doctorate from the University of Adelaide in Australia. After conducting post-doctoral research in Australia, Japan and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., he brought his diverse expertise to TU in 2007 and built a laboratory from the ground floor.

“We’re taking virus research in a new direction for grad students and faculty in the department,” Ali said. “Viruses are used to cure diseases, secure crop yields and protect the world’s food supply. Our projects will determine the causes and effects of how viruses establish in the host and spread to other hosts.”

plant virus research
Biology students assist Professor Ali with his summer field research near Bixby, Okla.

Since joining the TU Department of Biological Science, Ali has received 14 external grants from the United States Department of Agriculture, state agencies and private organizations and industry and has conducted more than 70 conference presentations around the world. His success in virus research earned him a Fulbright U.S. Scholar award earlier this year. The accolade will support advanced investigations at the University of Okayama, Japan, beginning in the fall 2017.

In the meantime, his lab is a popular learning environment among biology students. He has hosted more than 30 undergraduates along with several graduate students. Ali also serves regularly as a mentor for Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge Scholars. While most choose to specialize in fungal or bacteria research, he teaches human virology to undergraduates focusing on diseases such as hepatitis, HIV and cancer.

“Working with plant viruses is easy, and some of the data could be extrapolated to human viruses,” Ali said. “The techniques for molecular characterization of viruses are the same whether they infect human, plants or animals but just with a different host.”

His applied biology research extends from the wheat fields of western Oklahoma to strawberry patches in the southern part of the state. Ali said his lab is the only one in the United States to conduct virus studies in cotton with a grant from Cotton Inc. He has trained 50 state extension agents about virus symptoms in the field and treatment.

The obvious challenge in working with plants is that they can’t talk and provide information on pain or symptoms like humans would, Ali said. However, this is beneficial for virus research in the long run.

“Working with plants is more safe,” he said. “We can’t get a virus, such as the flu, from plants. When you work with humans, you have to do so at a very high level of biosecurity.”

Another benefit of researching human viruses in plants — Ali said each investigation reveals new information critical to protecting U.S. crops and sustaining the nation’s food supply.

Click here to learn more about Ali’s research on the detection of virus diseases in cotton.