More Research on Virus Mutations Published

With a two-month moratorium still in place on research studies that make the H5N1 virus more transmissible in mammals, a Michigan State University grad student and professor showed how easily a new virus can evolve dangerous traits.

Graduate student Justin Meyer and Richard Lenski, Hannah Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University, have published a new paper in the journal Science that adds to the current debate about research that might be useful to terrorists. Their study shows how a new virus can quickly evolve dangerous new traits -– in this case, a new way to attack host cells that took only four mutations for a virus called "Lambda."

MSU and the National Science Foundation posted news releases about their study Jan. 26, and NSF also linked to a video in which Meyer explains their research.

"We were surprised at first to see Lambda evolve this new function, this ability to attack and enter the cell through a new receptor, and it happened so fast," Meyer said. "But when we re-ran the evolution experiment, we saw the same thing happen over and over."

The research was done at BEACON, MSU's National Science Foundation Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, and explored the role of adaptation by natural selection in the virus' evolution. When the genomes of the adaptable virus were sequenced, they always had four mutations in common. The viruses that did not evolve the new way of entering cells had some of the four mutations but never all four together, said Meyer, who holds the Barnett Rosenberg Fellowship in MSUg's College of Natural Science.

"In other words, natural selection promoted the virus' evolution because the mutations helped them use both their old and new attacks," Meyer said. "The finding raises questions of whether the five bird flu mutations [described in papers submitted to Science and Nature that concerned a federal advisory panel] may also have multiple functions, and could they evolve naturally?"

Additional authors of the paper include Devin Dobias, a graduate student at Washington University; Ryan Quick, an MSU undergraduate; Jeff Barrick, a former Lenski lab researcher now on the faculty at the University of Texas; and Joshua Weitz, who is on the faculty at Georgia Tech.

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