Varki went to the Bishop Cotton Boys' School, Bangalore, India during which time he was also strongly influenced by his maternal grandfather Pothan Joseph, a famous journalist and founding editor of many Indian newspapers, including Deccan Herald. He went on to receive basic training in physiology, medicine, biology, and biochemistry at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, continuing to maintain the first rank in his class throughout his schooling. He then did postgraduate training at the University of Nebraska and Washington University in St. Louis, USA, leading to board certification in internal medicine, hematology, and oncology. Following a postdoctoral fellowship with Stuart Kornfeld in St. Louis, he joined the faculty of UCSD in 1982. Significant past appointments include: associate dean for physician-scientist training, co-head, Division of Hematology/Oncology, UCSD (1987–89), the interim directorship of the UCSD Cancer Center (1996–97), scientific advisor to the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center (University of Georgia), the Yerkes Primate Center (Emory University), member of the National Advisory Committee of PubMed Central (NLM/NIH), and coordinator for the multidisciplinary UCSD Project for Explaining the Origin of Humans.
The research group led by Varki has made many contributions over the last few decades towards understanding the biological roles of the sugar chains or "glycans" found on all vertebrate cell surfaces and glycoproteins. In this field of Glycobiology, his present focus is on the Sialic Acids, which are found at the outermost position on such glycans, and which can be recognized by intrinsic receptors such as Selectins and the Siglecs (which he co-discovered and named as a sub-group of I-type Lectins), and also by the binding proteins of various pathogens. The group studies the significance of these interactions in biology, evolution and disease. A particular focus is on multiple differences in sialic acid biology between humans and our closest evolutionary cousins, the great apes. These represent unusual events that occurred during human evolution and are relevant to understanding aspects of human uniqueness in health and disease.
Varki has emphasized the key role of Physician-Scientists in the success of the US biomedical enterprise, and advocated for the support and preservation of this track at the national level. He also played a key role in advocating for a chimpanzee genome project, while emphasizing the need for ethical treatment of chimpanzees in research. He continues to advocate for and facilitate interactions amongst scientists with interests in explaining the origin of the human species. In this regard, he coined the term "Phenome", in the context of recommending a "Great Ape Phenome Project". While Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Varki made it the first major biomedical journal to be freely available on the web in 1996, presaging the general "Open Access" movement that came years later. He also created the first viable model for a major Open Access textbook, the 2nd. Edition of the textbook Essentials of Glycobiology. Varki is also very concerned about improving the support systems for women who pursue academic scientific careers, while also wishing to bear children. Varki and his wife Nissi enjoy entertaining, including a Christmas Carols celebration serving Tandoori goose.
While Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Varki made it the first major biomedical journal to be freely available on the web in 1996. Varki wrote, "The vexing issue of the day is how to appropriately charge users for this electronic access. The nonprofit nature of the JCI allows consideration of a truly novel solution — not to charge anyone at all!". As executive editor of Essentials of Glycobiology, Varki also made it the first major biomedical textbook that was fully open access.
Diet and disease
Varki's group has recently shown that a diet rich in red meat can result in accumulation of a non-human sialic acid molecule called Neu5Gc ("Gc") in the intestines and other tissues. This can allow type of dangerous E.coli toxin to affect the human body. Also, humans develop antibodies against this foreign Gc molecule, increasing the risk of diseases like cancer.
Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT)
Varki developed an idea proposed in 2005 by the late Danny Brower of the University of Arizona into a theory called Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) which has been published in two letters and two books. MORT proposes an evolutionary mechanism to explain the emergence of behaviorally modern humans and some of their unique behaviors including an extended theory of mind and a tendency to deny reality.
Beyond his primary research accomplishments, Varki has written many widely cited and influential review articles, commentaries and letters on a variety of topics. Some examples are listed below. His publications have been cited more than 60,000 times and he has an h-index of 122.
Varki A, Holmes E, Yamada T, Agre P, Brenner S (April 2006). "Physician-scientists are needed now more than ever". Nature. 440 (7085): 740. Bibcode:2006Natur.440..740V. doi:10.1038/440740b. PMID16598232.
Varki A (September 2006). "Nothing in glycobiology makes sense, except in the light of evolution". Cell. 126 (5): 841–5. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2006.08.022. PMID16959563. S2CID 17885036.
Varki A, Angata T (January 2006). "Siglecs—the major subfamily of I-type lectins". Glycobiology. 16 (1): 1R–27R. doi:10.1093/glycob/cwj008. PMID16014749.
Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny
^"GRTC: About". United States: Glycobiology Research and Training Center. Archived from the original on February 13, 2012. Retrieved February 23, 2013.
^"Center for Academic Research Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA)". Carta.anthropogeny.org. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^ abEssentials of Glycobiology. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. October 3, 2011. ISBN 9780879695590. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"UCSD Office of the Associate Dean for Physician-Scientist Training". Meded.ucsd.edu. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"San Diego Science Festival 2009 Nifty Fifty – Profile for Dr. Ajit Varki". Scholarnexus.com. May 23, 2007. Archived from the original on December 30, 2011. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"Varki Lab Website". Cmm.ucsd.edu. Archived from the original on February 13, 2012. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^Bruce Lieberman (2008). "Human evolution: Details of being human". Nature. Nature.com. 454 (7200): 21–23. doi:10.1038/454021a. PMID18596780.
^Varki Ajit; Rosenberg Leon E (2002). "Emerging opportunities and career paths for the young physician-scientist". Nature Medicine. 8 (5): 437–439. doi:10.1038/nm0502-437. PMID11984577. S2CID 8639414.
^Ajit Varki (August 1, 2000). "A Chimpanzee Genome Project Is a Biomedical Imperative. By Ajit Varki. Genome Res. 2000. 10: 1065–1070". Genome Research. Genome.cshlp.org. 10 (8): 1065–1070. doi:10.1101/gr.10.8.1065. PMID10958623. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^Gagneux Pascal; Moore James J.; Varki Ajit (September 2005). "The ethics of research on great apes". Nature. 437 (7055): 27–29. Bibcode:2005Natur.437...27G. doi:10.1038/437027a. PMID16136111. S2CID 11500691.
^Varki, A; Wills, C; Perlmutter, D; et al. (October 9, 1998). "Great Ape Phenome Project?". Science. 282 (5387): 239d–239. Bibcode:1998Sci...282..239V. doi:10.1126/science.282.5387.239d. PMID9841385. S2CID 5837659. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^Savla U (2004). "Reflecting on 80 years of excellence". J. Clin. Invest. 114 (8): 1006–16. doi:10.1172/JCI23290. PMC522269. PMID15489943.
^Savla, U (2004). "Reflecting on 80 years of excellence". J. Clin. Invest. 114 (8): 1006–16. doi:10.1172/JCI23290. PMC522269. PMID15489943.
^Varki, A (1996). "The times they are still a'changing: keeping up with the times". J Clin Invest. 97 (1): 1. doi:10.1172/JCI118375. PMC507053. PMID8550819.
^Varki A, Cummings R, Esko J, Freeze H, Stanley P, Bertozzi C, Hart G, Etzler M (2008). Essentials of glycobiology (2nd ed.). Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. ISBN 978-0-87969-770-9.
^Kain, Debra (October 29, 2008). "Eating Red Meat Sets Up Target for Disease-Causing Bacteria". Ucsdnews.ucsd.edu. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^Kain, Debra (November 13, 2008). "How Eating Red Meat Can Spur Cancer Progression". Ucsdnews.ucsd.edu. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^Varki, A. (2009). "Human uniqueness and the denial of death". Nature. 460 (7256): 684. Bibcode:2009Natur.460..684V. doi:10.1038/460684c. PMID19661895.
^Varki, A. (2016). "Why are there no persisting hybrids of humans with Denisovans, Neanderthals, or anyone else?". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 113 (17): E2354. Bibcode:2016PNAS..113E2354V. doi:10.1073/pnas.1602270113. PMC4855598. PMID27044111.
^Varki, Ajit. (2013). Denial : self-deception, false beliefs, and the origins of the human mind. Brower, Danny L. (1st ed.). New York: Twelve. ISBN 9781455511914. OCLC 816563634.
^Varki, Ajit (2019), "Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience? A Theory that Can Explain Unusual Features of the Origin and Fate of Our Species", in Shackelford, Todd K.; Zeigler-Hill, Virgil (eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Death, Evolutionary Psychology, Springer International Publishing, pp. 109–135, doi:10.1007/978-3-030-25466-7_6, ISBN 9783030254650
^"Academy Elects 225th Class of Fellows and Foreign Honorary Members". Amacad.org. April 26, 2005. Archived from the original on June 15, 2009. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"Institute of Medicine of the National Academies Directory – Ajit Varki". Iom.edu. Archived from the original on 2012-08-03. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"The American Society for Clinical Investigation Membership List". The-asci.org. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"New Initiative to Study the Glycobiology of Cancer Could Aid Understanding of Cancer Risk and Detection". Cancer.gov. August 22, 2007. Archived from the original on 2010-05-27. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"Karl Meyer Award Background and Past Winners". Glycobiology.org. Archived from the original on 2011-09-28. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"UCSD News. March 8, 2007. By Debra Kain. "UCSD's Ajit Varki to Receive Glycobiology's Highest International Honor"". Ucsdnews.ucsd.edu. March 8, 2007. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"Society for Glycobiology: Committees: Past Presidents". Glycobiology.org. Archived from the original on 2011-12-23. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^Insel PA, Kornfeld S, Majerus PW, Marks AR, Marks PA, Relman AS, Scharschmidt BF, Stossel TP, Varki AP, Weiss SJ, Wilson JD (October 15, 2004). "Historical Highlights: Blasts from the past". Journal of Clinical Investigation. 114 (8): 1017–1033. doi:10.1172/JCI23321. PMC522273. PMID15489944.
^"American Society for Clinical Investigation Council History". The-asci.org. Retrieved January 4, 2012.
^"Jorge Hirsch's research and public service page". Physics.ucsd.edu. Retrieved January 4, 2012.