Scientists Detail New Findings in the Transmission of Viruses Between Species

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From left: LLNL scientist Monica Borucki from the Lab's Biosciences and Biotechnology Division looks at cell lines used for viral propagation as members of her multidisciplinary research team, Jonathan Allen and Haiyin Chen look on. Photo by Jamie Douglas/LLNL.

A team of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists led by Monica Borucki of LLNL's Biosciences and Biotechnology Division, has made promising new discoveries that provide insight into the emergence of inter-species transmittable viruses.

They discovered that the genetic diversity of a viral population within a host animal could allow a virus to adapt to certain conditions, which could help it reach a human host. This discovery advances the scientific understanding of how new viruses produced from animal reservoirs can infect people. An animal reservoir is an animal species that harbors an infectious agent, which then goes on to potentially infect humans or other species. Borucki's team is investigating viruses related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus MERS, but not the actual viruses themselves.

"The team's findings are the first steps in developing methods for predicting which viral species are most likely to jump from animals to humans and potentially cause outbreaks of diseases," Borucki says.

 Borucki's LLNL multidisciplinary research team includes Jonathan Allen, Tom Slezak, Clinton Torres and Adam Zemla from the Computation Directorate; Haiyin Chen from the Engineering Directorate; and Pam Hullinger, Gilda Vanier and Shalini Mabery from the Physical and Life Sciences Directorate.
 
Coronaviruses are one of the groups of viruses that most commonly jump to new host species as evidenced by SARS and MERS, according to Borucki. These viruses appear to have jumped from animals to humans and are capable of causing severe diseases in humans.

"Our discoveries indicate that the next generation of genetic sequencing technology, combined with advance computational analysis, can be used to characterize the dynamics of certain viral populations," she says.

The team's work on coronaviruses received funding from LLNL's Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).

In June, a research paper published in the Journal of General Virology by other scientists cited the Borucki team's findings as pioneering, and it recommended their methodology for studying viral evolution.

Borucki says her team's research findings eventually could be used to influence how vaccines and antivirals are designed and tested.

"Deep Illumina sequencing (a type of genetic sequencing that involves sequencing reads in parallel) is already being used extensively to understand HIV and hepatitis C resistance to antivirals," she says. "We plan to follow up our findings by examining how animal host traits such as nutritional status (being malnourished or obese) influence how viruses evolve."

This latest discovery is part of a string of achievements for Borucki's team. In 2010, they secured a three-year, $1.4 million contract from DTRA to fund a research project to study how to better determine the origins of a virus.

 

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