Valerian Dolja was born on October 15, 1952, in Sumy, Ukraine. He received his M.S. degree in 1974, Ph.D. degree in 1980, and D.Sc. degree in 1987, all from Moscow State University (MSU). He was a senior research scientist at Moscow State University and then a research scientist at Texas A&M University from 1991 to 1994. He joined the faculty at Oregon State University in 1994, where he is now a professor.
Dolja is one of those extremely rare scientists who combines broad and wide-open scholarship with uncompromisingly rigorous experimentation and conceptual thinking. Over the past 25 years, he has been a leader in molecular plant virology, but has also had significant impact beyond this field.
Dolja has had an eventful scientific career that reflects major upheavals in world politics. By 1989, he was the leader of a dynamic research group at MSU. His group pioneered molecular biology of closteroviruses, one of the most devastating groups of plant viral pathogens. At the time, analyzing the 15 kb genome of BYV was a serious challenge, which required formidable technical skills and perseverance. However, what emerged from this research was a foundation that would later pay great dividends.
Dolja’s career took a dramatic turn in 1991 when, together with his collaborator Eugene Koonin, he went to the United States for what was intended to be four months in the laboratory of James Carrington, then at Texas A&M University. While there, both Dolja and Koonin realized that the independent researcher-oriented U.S. system suited their aspirations much better than the rigid and authoritarian Russian system. Dolja decided to risk his scientific career by resigning from his tenured position in Moscow and staying in Texas. This was a brave move, but it catalyzed a new period in his career. In the Carrington lab in the early 1990s, he succeeded in producing infectious cDNA clones for Tobacco etch potyvirus, which transformed the work in the lab and enabled extremely productive discoveries about this large virus family. Dolja figured out how to express reporter proteins from recombinant viruses, visualize and measure virus movement and replication, and dissect the functions of several potyvirus proteins. The papers that emerged from his potyvirus work remain some of the most highly cited publications in the plant virus field from that era. His time in Texas represents a rebirth of Dolja’s career. His spectacular research and vision were rewarded in 1994 with a faculty position at Oregon State University (OSU).
Once at OSU, Valerian returned to his old passion, the closteroviruses, and has done the most informative work to dissect genome and particle structure and function, virus movement, host-cell interactions, and counter-defense. He revealed the complex assembly requirements for the virions of a novel morphology. He assigned functions for cell-to-cell and long-distance movement, and identified proteins required to suppress the antiviral silencing response. These findings resulted in a novel concept of the virion-associated transport devices that rapidly gains support among other elongated viruses, including potyviruses. Keep in mind that the closteroviruses possess the second-largest RNA genomes known; Dolja’s work has provided deep insight into how these genomes have evolved.
Dolja has also applied generated knowledge to develop closteroviruses into extremely versatile gene expression and silencing vectors. Importantly, he succeeded in producing such vectors for grapevine, an achievement that has potential to revolutionize functional genomics and pathogen control in this high cash value crop.
Recently, he used insightful observations from closteroviruses to figure out the functions of the myosin motors in the plant cell biology. Initially inspired by the desire to understand how viruses interacted with the cytoskeleton to move, Dolja embarked on a systematic analysis of myosins, which transport cargoes like organelles around cells on the actin cytoskeleton. He was first to identify the specific myosins that are responsible for most of organelle trafficking, and revealed novel functions of myosins in cell architecture, dynamics, and growth. He also shattered the old paradigm of uniform “cytoplasm streaming,” showing instead that organelles traffic in a myosin-dependent and highly complex manner. Dolja’s movement into cell biology, with important questions related to plant development waiting to be answered, speaks volumes about his ability to transform his research and his lab.
In addition to his experimental work, Dolja has also been a leader in deciphering the evolutionary history of viruses. This is an exciting time in evolutionary biology, when comparative analysis of the rapidly expanding collection of genomes and metagenomic sequences from all walks of life provides for major new insights. Dolja and Koonin (who joined the National Institutes of Health in 1991) have continued their collaboration in the United States. Among their most important work was the 1993 synthesis on evolution of RNA viruses, which remains the conceptual framework of the field. In their 2006 and following papers, they developed the concept of the “Virus World” that, I believe, is a substantial step ahead in the evolving understanding of the origins of viruses and cells.
Dolja’s marvelous contributions to virology, plant biology, and evolution are documented with an impressive publication record during the last 20 years. He is a highly sought-after speaker at national and international meetings and a wonderful, community-minded colleague at OSU. On his scientific achievements alone, he would elevate the prestige of the Ruth Allen Award. But let’s return for a moment to 1991, when Dolja literally decided at the last moment not to board a plane back to Moscow after a couple of months in the Carrington lab. At that moment, the Soviet Union was in a highly chaotic state of unravel, and a return represented deep uncertainty and likely doom of his scientific career. At the risk of not seeing his wife and two young boys for an unknown amount of time, he stayed in Texas for the love of science and his family who supported his decision, rather than return to a grim future back home. After nine months alone in the United States, his family was finally able to join him. Dolja, and indeed his family, exemplifies the notion of success through hard work, sacrifice, risk, and creativity.