Spotlight: Highly Cited Researcher Edward Holmes

Ranking in the top 1% by citations in the Web of Science™, Highly Cited Researchers™ are renowned for exceptional research influence. But what makes them tick?

In celebration of the Highly Cited Researchers 2021, we spotlight on 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 Highly Cited Researcher — Microbiology Professor Edward Holmes FRS FAA, ARC Australian Laureate Fellow, Evolutionary Biologist and Virologist, University of Sydney.

Edward’s research aims to provide fundamental insights into the breadth and biodiversity of the viral world. By revealing the major mechanisms of virus evolution, we can more accurately understand how viruses are able to emerge to cause disease in new hosts. In this article, Edward shares his thoughts on what it means for his research to be highly cited.


Tell us how you came to be a researcher in your field/discipline.

I have always been fascinated by evolution – how biological systems originate and change. While my Ph.D. and first postdoctoral fellowship considered aspects of evolution and genetics, I had not really found my niche. This changed in the late 1980s after hearing a colleague talk about how evolutionary ideas could be used to understand the AIDS virus HIV. That sparked my interest, showed how evolutionary ideas could be of practical importance, and made me realize that I might be able to make a difference in this area. This set me on a research theme and career path that I have followed ever since.

After postdoctoral work in the United States and United Kingdom, I finally took-up a faculty position at the University of Oxford. After a successful time there, where I established an international reputation and worked with some outstanding colleagues, I moved back to the United States in 2005 and then onto my current position at the University of Sydney in 2012.

Although I have always worked on the evolution of viruses and other microbes, I have addressed many different topics within this, and have worked on my different viruses that infect many different species. I am very happy to always have many projects on the go. I also feel that my work has steadily improved with time so that there are some benefits to middle-age.


“Great collaborations are hugely important as you almost never achieve success in isolation. Follow the questions that spark your curiosity. The curiosity of the human mind is the best research tool of all.”


Did you know, before becoming a Highly Cited Researcher that you were one of the most read/cited authors on the planet?

I knew that my work was relatively well-cited, and I have published a lot (>600) of papers which obviously increases citation numbers, but I did not know the true extent. It is tremendous to be recognized and a great honor to be a Highly Cited Researcher. I have also benefited enormously from having wonderful and productive research groups everywhere I have worked and by collaborating with some of the world’s leading scientists. Great collaborations are hugely important as you almost never achieve success in isolation. Follow the questions that spark your curiosity. The curiosity of the human mind is the best research tool of all.


Why is your research important – how do you see it changing the world?

My work is about understanding the natural world, particularly understanding the diversity and evolution of viruses, and how they emerge in hosts. Arguably the most important aspect of my work is that it has provided a better understanding of how viruses are able to jump species boundaries and then adapt to new hosts, sometimes leading to serious disease.


“There is no better illustration of the importance of what I do than COVID-19! I have spent virtually every day since January 2020 trying to understand how the virus emerged, evolved and spread in human populations.”


As well as COVID-19, I have performed a large body of work on how viruses like influenza, dengue and Ebola have spread through human populations and revealed the factors that shape their diversity. Hopefully this information will assist in the control and mitigation of disease outbreaks when they occur in the future. Overall, I believe that I have helped us understand a bit more about the diversity of RNA viruses and how they evolve. Most of all I hope that my research helps protect us from the impact of future pandemics.


What impact does your research have on the community/society/economy?

I have been doing research science for a long time and thankfully there are plenty of success stories. The first serious research I did was on understanding how HIV spread through a specific risk population in Scotland and within individual patients. Not only was this some the earliest work in this area, but it was instrumental in showing the power of genomic sequence data to reconstruct viral epidemics.

In recent years, I am particularly proud of the work that I have done with colleagues in Mainland China on describing the size and diversity of the total number of viruses on Earth – the so-called ‘virosphere’. This has really changed our view of the natural history of viruses and their role in global ecosystems, even challenging the dogma that viruses are always associated with overt disease.

But I will probably be best known for my work on COVID-19, particularly as I was involved in some of the very first papers to describe the virus. There’s no doubt that these will have a lasting legacy and they have already been very highly cited!


 What impact will being listed on the Highly Cited Researchers list have on your future work, professional career?

It will certainly give myself and my research group much more recognition as well as an important boost in morale, and hopefully make my home institution proud. I think it is particularly important to pass the baton on to younger researchers, so I really hope that the more junior members of my research group also get the recognition they deserve and that it inspires them to work hard and have great careers in science. It is hugely important to emphasize that becoming an HCR is very much a team effort.


What advice would you give to new and emerging researchers/scientists?

Follow the questions that spark your curiosity. Don’t overly worry about trends – these come and go – follow your instinct as that will always reward you. The curiosity of the human mind is the best research tool of all. Finally, always act with integrity and treat your peers with respect.


Congratulations to Edward and thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us.

To see the full list of Highly Cited Researchers and read more about the selection methodology and other details, please visit