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Ralph S. Baric, PhD, is a UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center member. His lab uses coronaviruses as models to study the genetics of RNA virus transcription, replication, persistence, and cross species transmission.

William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology
UNC-Chapel Hill

Area of Interest

Zoonotic viruses represent a potentially rich source of new emerging pathogens in humans, yet little information is available concerning the molecular, genetic and evolutionary mechanisms that regulate the establishment and dissemination of such a virus within a newly adopted host. Baric’s group is utilizing molecular, genetic and biochemical approaches to decipher the complex interactions between the virion and cell surface molecules that function in the entry and cross species transmission of positive strand RNA viruses. Using a highly species specific strain of mouse hepatitis virus (MHV), a model system has been developed to study virus cross species transmission under conditions that may be present in human xenograph recipients. Due to the lack of suitable organ donors, xenotransplantation will likely become the treatment of choice for end-stage organ failure in humans. Considerable debate exists as to whether this medical practice will result in new pathways for zoonotic virus adaptation to the human host. Baric’s group has demonstrated that xenotropic host range variants (MHV-H2) of MHV rapidly evolve in their experimental model suggesting that xenograph recipients may represent an optimum environment for virus cross species transmission. Viruses appear to bridge the species barrier by punctuated evolution and positive Darwinian natural selection at the molecular level resulting in virus recognition of phylogenetic homologues of the normal receptor for docking and entry into human cells.

Research projects currently study the evolutionary mechanisms that occur in viruses when subjected to changing environmental conditions. Baric’s team is also identifying the sites of virus-receptor interaction that regulate MHV-H2 entry into human cell lines and the mutations in the virus which expand host range specificity. Projects are also available to study virus cross species transmission in vivo in a small animal model for xenotransplantation.

Find publications on PubMed

Awards and Honors

  • Highly Cited Researchers (Top 1%), Web of Science, Clarivate Analytics, 2021, 2022, 2023
  • Elected into American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2022
  • Elected into National Academy of Sciences, 2021
  • Triangle Business Journal’s Health Care Heroes Lifetime Achievement Award, 2021
  • Norma Berryhill Distinguished Lecture, UNC-Chapel Hill, 2020
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