Meet a leading evolutionary geneticist who’s solving everything from biodiversity loss to the spread of mosquito-borne disease

Laureate Professor Ary Hoffmann (La Trobe Distinguished Alumni Award, 2020) applies evolutionary thinking to solve all kinds of complex problems. He shares how his career-defining discovery is helping defeat dengue fever, and why some of his fondest La Trobe memories centre around the Agora.

What do evolution, ecology, sustainability, climate change and pest management have in common? They’re all fields in which Laureate Professor Ary Hoffmann (PhD in Genetics, 1984) has had a profound impact.

“I’d probably call myself a biologist. But I’m also a geneticist, and I do a lot of evolutionary biology and entomology. I’m interested in all sorts of things,” Ary says.

Ary is best known as a world leader in studies of Wolbachia, bacteria that have since been proven to suppress the transmission of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever.

Wolbachia is an organism that lives inside the cells of insects. And I discovered it purely by chance when I was crossing a couple of populations to do a genetics-type experiment,” he says.

Wolbachia gave us an opportunity to control human diseases in new ways. We realised that the insects’ ability to transmit viruses seemed to be linked to the bacteria that live inside their cells, and that by manipulating the nature of those bacteria, they might even be able to block a virus completely. And that seems to be the case with dengue fever.”

With 30 per cent of the world’s population living in dengue transmission areas, and no vaccine for dengue, the impact of Ary’s discovery is tremendous. Manipulating Wolbachia in mosquitoes has successfully stopped these insects from passing dengue to humans.

“It’s been enormously rewarding to see these bacteria, which I first discovered in flies, being transferred to mosquitoes and watching them spread from one generation to the next. We don’t have any dengue transmission anymore in north Queensland – and now, that program’s being rolled out around the world.”

From lab to library: Ary’s memories of La Trobe

Like many La Trobe alumni, Ary was the first person in his immediate family to go to university. But he admits it took some time to settle on the idea of studying.

“After high school, I went hitch-hiking around Europe and the Middle East. After a couple of years I thought, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’” Ary says.

“As I was travelling, I started reading books about science just to pass the time. I remember picking up a biochemistry book in a second-hand book shop and thinking, ‘This is really fascinating! Maybe study is something I could do and enjoy?’ So, I came back and started studying.”

Having achieved first class honours in his undergraduate degree, Ary embarked on a PhD at La Trobe in the early 1980s. At the time, he was captivated by the work of La Trobe’s foundation Professor of Genetics, Peter Parsons.

“He was doing genetic studies on behaviour, which I found fascinating,” Ary says. “La Trobe was a good place to be, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.”

During his PhD, Ary studied Drosophila, commonly known as vinegar flies. Part of his research explored how different lines of flies responded to chemicals, and then investigated the genes underlying those responses.

Long nights at the lab created camaraderie between Ary and the other PhD students. By night, they’d stay up late working on experiments. And by day, they’d gather in the Agora – a meeting place at the heart of La Trobe’s Bundoora campus.

“And as a PhD student, you walk around the Ag and there’s always someone to talk to. You run into academic staff, as well as students. You encounter all sorts of people.”

Ary also recalls spending a lot of time in the Borchardt Library.

“In those days we didn’t have email or PDFs, so we did a lot of photocopying. You’d find something exciting in a paper volume, then you’d have to queue in the photocopy machine line and start feeding in coins… but then you’d run out of coins!” he laughs.

“There were several banks in the Agora in those days, so you’d go and ask for a great stack of five cent coins. Then you’d rush back to the library and do some more photocopying.”

Helping organisms adapt to climate change

After graduating, Ary undertook a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of California. But La Trobe again beckoned, and Ary returned two years later to teach the fundamentals of ecological and evolutionary thinking.

For more than a decade, Ary worked as a lecturer, senior lecturer and then reader in La Trobe’s Department of Human Variation. In 1998, he took on the role of personal chair and later director of the Centre for Environmental Stress and Adaptation Research (CESAR), a collaborative research centre that’s since grown into a busy research and extension company.

Today, Ary is the Chair of Ecological Genetics at the School of BioSciences and Bio21 Institute in The University of Melbourne. His scholarly work is cited over 6,000 times per year and its real-world applications are almost as widespread: from manipulating bacteria to control human disease, to dealing with pests in the wine and grain industries.

But the application of knowledge Ary is most passionate about is protecting biodiversity. He’s hopeful that by using genetics and evolution, scientists will be able to boost the adaptive capacity of species threatened by future climate change.

“How do you take a species that’s threatened now and make sure it’s going to be around for a long time? How do you genetically produce a situation where organisms are going to be able to adapt to environmental change?” he asks.

“You need to preserve the ability of that organism to evolve and to deal with environmental conditions that are changing all the time. And that goes all the way from flightless grasshoppers through to marsupials like the mountain pygmy possum.”

‘Don’t just think about yourself’

Ary’s drive to make a difference through evolutionary biology has caught the attention of scientific groups around the world. His vision has led him to occupy a range of leadership positions, collecting countless awards along the way.

Most notably, he’s been President of the Australian Entomological Society, and former International Vice President of the Society for the Study of Evolution. And his excellence has been honoured by membership of the Australian Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

For scientists keen to follow in his footsteps, Ary’s advice is twofold: be flexible, and think of others.

“It’s very important to not get too stuck, to maintain some level of flexibility and not narrow your pathways too early on. As an undergraduate student, take a diversity of subjects, because you never know what’s going to grab your interest,” he says.

“It’s also important to be a little bit soft on yourself. If things aren’t going well with your studies or your further career, it’s okay to take some time out to reassess where you might want to go.”

But above all, Ary says, extend that self-compassion to others, and to the planet.

“As you develop your career, think about the broader context of what you’re working in. Regardless of what you’re doing, don’t just think about yourself – think about the environment and the communities you’re living in, too. You are, in a sense, what you leave behind. And it’s very important to do that properly.”