Rick McLaughlin, PhD

Assistant Investigator

Lab Focus

Genome Evolution

Host vs Pathogen

Disease Susceptibility


PNRI’s McLaughlin Lab seeks to understand how the evolutionary past of humans and their pathogens has shaped their current function. Transposable elements (TEs) have generated the majority of the sequence in the human genome, and all of human biology has evolved in the ever-present DNA, RNA, and protein made by these self-replicating pieces of selfish DNA. The replication of transposable elements constitutes a major source of new mutations in humans which drive genome instability and a variety of genetic diseases. 

The McLaughlin Lab wants to understand the genetic mechanisms used by human genomes to defend against TEs, the genetic mechanisms used by TEs to support their own propagation, how host genomes have co-opted TEs to innovate immune defense against pathogens. This research team tackles fundamental questions surrounding this conflict between our genomes and TEs with the long-term goal of improving our understanding of the biological underpinnings of autoimmune diseases like Aicardi-Goutières Syndrome (AGS) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and the ways that hidden variation in transposable element-created sequence can alter an individual’s susceptibility to disease.

“I am fascinated by evolution and the potential of using evolutionary insights to generate novel perspectives on basic biomedical problems with implications for human health and disease.”

Rick McLaughlin, PhD

Assistant Investigator

Lab Members

Joey McDonald

Research Technician

Amanda Norseen

Research Technician

Cynthia Nunez

Undergraduate Researcher

Ricky Padilla Del Valle

Graduate Student

Ernesto Torres

Undergraduate Researcher

Lei Yang, PhD

Staff Scientist


Rick McLaughlin, PhD

Rick McLaughlin, PhD, joined PNRI as an Assistant Investigator in 2018, and since then has brought together a group of scientists from a broad range of backgrounds and expertise who are working to advance question-driven research using diverse computational and wet lab techniques. He earned his PhD in molecular biology and protein evolution at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he studied with Dr. Rama Ranganathan, before going on to research the genetics of evolutionary conflict during his postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Dr. Harmit Malik at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. In addition to his position at PNRI, Dr. McLaughlin currently holds faculty positions with the University of Washington’s Department of Genome Sciences and the Molecular and Cellular Biology Graduate Program.

Research Projects


Coevolution of genomes and transposable elements

Fascinated by the scale of the impact transposable elements have had on the human genome (around half of the human genome comes from these elements), the McLaughlin Lab wants to understand the genetic mechanisms used by humans to defend against retroelements and the genetic mechanisms used by retroelements to support their own propagation.



Retroviruses complete their life cycle by exploiting host cellular mechanisms and bypassing host restriction factors. Because of the unique life cycle based on reverse transcriptase (RT)-mediated integration/replication, retroviruses present a unique set of challenges to the host immune system; however, these viruses also routinely copy host mRNAs into new gene copies called ‘retrocopies’.

Rick McLaughlin, PhD
Awards & Honors

2012 – 2015

HHMI Postdoctoral Fellowship

Helen Hay Whitney Foundation

2006 – 2009

NIH Predoctoral Training Grant

UT Southwestern Department of Pharmacology, NIGMS 5T32GM007062