Ajit Varki
This new type of glycan we found may give us a better way to investigate which lineage is ours, as well as answer many other questions about our evolution.

Science & Medicine Pioneer

Ajit Varki

Cellular & Molecular Medicine, UC San Diego School of Medicine

Ajit Varki is a Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular & Molecular Medicine at UC San Diego, adjunct professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and executive editor of Essentials in Glycobiology. He is also the founding director of the Glycobiology Research and Training Center and founding co-director of the UCSD/Salk Center for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogeny.


Varki’s lab studies a family of sugar molecules called the sialic acids, which are found at the outermost position on the glycan chains of all vertebrate cell surfaces and glycoproteins, and their roles in biology, evolution, and disease. These glycans are known to mediate or modulate many biological processes including sub-cellular and cellular trafficking, intercellular adhesion, signaling, and microbial attachment. Much data also indicates their involvement in embryonic development, normal tissue organization, tumor metastasis, and in the interactions of cells with extracellular molecules. His lab is focused on understanding the differences in sialic acid biology between humans and several ape species, including chimpanzees.

In a proof-of-concept study published in the journal PNAS in 2017, Varki and his team discovered a new kind of glycan that survives even in a 4 million-year-old animal fossil from Kenya, under conditions where ancient DNA did not. “In recent decades, many new hominin fossils were discovered and considered to be the ancestors of humans,” said Varki in a release on the study. “But it’s not possible that all gave rise to modern humans — it’s more likely that there were many human-like species over time, only one from which we descended. This new type of glycan we found may give us a better way to investigate which lineage is ours, as well as answer many other questions about our evolution, and our propensity to consume red meat.”

Varki is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, National Academy of Medicine, American Society for Clinical Investigation, Association of American Physicians, and Sigma Xi, a scientific research honor society. In the past, Varki has been a recipient of a MERIT award from the NIH, the American Cancer Society Faculty Research Award, as well as three of the highest honors in the field: the Karl Meyer Award (2005), the International Glycoconjugate Organization Award (2007), and the Rosalind Kornfeld Award for Lifetime Achievement in Glycobiology (2020). More recently, he was awarded the ASBMB Herbert Tabor Research Award (2023). Varki was also recognized for creating the first major open-access research journalThe Journal of Clinical Investigation, JCI (1996), as well as the first major open-access textbookEssentials of Glycobiology (2008). Varki was honored with the Old Cottonian of Eminence Award at the 150th Anniversary of Bishop Cotton Boy's School in Bangalore, India (2015), and was also honored with the Annual Research Day Distinguished Faculty Medal and Oration at his medical school alma mater, the Christian Medical College, Vellore, India (2020)

Dr. Varki's interests in human evolution also led him to propose a novel Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory about human origins in the book DENIAL.

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