Scientists Create Predictive Avian Flu Map

Scientists at Ohio State University (OSU) recently announced that they have designed a new, interactive map that displays the spread of the avian flu virus (H5N1) that for the first time incorporates genetic, geographic, and evolutionary information that may help predict where the next outbreak of the virus is likely to occur. The map's creation coincides with the publication of a study titled "Genomic Analysis and Geographic Visualization of the Spread of Avian Influenza (H5N1)" which appears online in the April issue of Systematic Biology.

A team of biomedical experts led by Daniel Janies, an assistant professor in the department of biomedical informatics at OSU, used special software to create an evolutionary tree of the virus's mutations, then used Keyhole Markup Language in Google Earth to project the tree onto the globe with colors and symbols to indicate different hosts that carry the virus and where they live. TimeSpan, another function in Google Earth, allowed them to animate the spread of the virus over the past decade. Clicking on a specific viral subtype generates a popup window revealing diagnostic mutations that distinguish one strain of the virus from another, and all of the data is linked to the National Institute of Health's (NIH's) GenBank.

"The map gives us a whole new way of seeing the virus in action and understanding what it is--and isn't--doing," Janies said. "It's enabled us to compare findings about viruses in the real world against pre-existing hypotheses about the spread of H5N1 that come from laboratory studies."

A press release stated that in creating the map, researchers studied genetic data from 351 isolates of the virus and were especially interested in discovering if certain hosts were carrying specific forms of the virus and which viruses carried specific mutations enabling transmission to humans; however, Janies noted that despite efforts to stimulate collaboration and publication of all data regarding avian flu, a significant amount of genomic information remains in private hands.

Because the map is universally applicable in tracking the spread of infectious agents, Janies said his group is already working on mapping other diseases, such as SARS.

Funding for the project came from NIH and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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