This is an interview with a PhD student of the Complex Systems & Metagenomics projects in a series of background articles. Keep following this website for the next interview in this series.
Interview with Renate Hakse van der Honing, PhD student of the project ‘Tracking the public health hazard of foodborne Hepatitis E’ at Wageningen University & Research.
“Before my PhD, I worked as a technician. I saw PhD students come and go and I assisted them during their research. When another PhD position became available, I thought: Maybe I should do it myself.
Now I am working on the Hepatitis E virus. People become infected with it when eating contaminated pork meat. Currently, this virus that causes liver disease is making advances in Europe. This may be because the virus is mutating towards a more dangerous variant. To investigate if this is the case, I am mapping out the genetic information of the different virus subtypes in the Netherlands in a ‘family tree’. This will show similarities and differences between Hepatitis E virus subtypes that may be responsible for a more dangerous variant.
To create the tree I need to read the entire genetic code of Hepatitis E viruses, which remains challenging. Part of the problem is that the virus samples come from pigs and their faeces; a sample does not just contain viruses, but also bacteria, undigested food and animal cells. It is comparable to reading a book in which ten stories are printed on top of each other: it is hard to distinguish which word – or even letter – belongs to which story. If we remove these other nine texts, it will be easier to read the story of the virus book. This is what I am currently working on: removing other debris to obtain a purer virus sample.”