Investigators at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital have completed the first large-scale study of bird flu virus genomes, thereby doubling the amount of genetic information available on the genes and proteins of these viruses. The results of the project could lead to major insights into the bird flu virus known as H5N1, the researchers said. H5N1 is the bird flu virus currently infecting humans in Asia and Eastern Europe, and flu experts fear it could mutate in a way that would allow it to cause a worldwide pandemic in humans.
“These studies provide the first fundamental insight into the evolution of influenza viruses in nature—the source of all influenza viruses that affect humans, domestic animals and birds,” said Robert G. Webster, Ph.D., a member of the Infectious Diseases department and holder of the Rose Marie Thomas Chair at St. Jude. “This information is a true gold mine, and we are inviting all of the miners to help us unlock the secrets of influenza.” Webster is an internationally renowned expert on bird flu viruses and a co-author of the report that appears in the January 27 issue of Science.
[...] The project produced 70 million bases of sequence information leading to DNA sequences for 2,196 genes and 169 complete bird flu genomes from the St. Jude collection, including representatives of all known subtypes of the virus including H5 bird flu. Preliminary analysis of these data and development of new analysis software has led to the discovery of new forms of bird flu genes, how these viruses evolve through time and the identification of genes that travel together through evolution. The St. Jude research also made an intriguing discovery that avian influenza viruses have a particular molecular feature that human influenza viruses do not have, which may cause them to be more toxic when infecting human cells.