Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Supramap: Predictiong the Spread and Evolution of Viruses

By Annalee Newitz
(Not Me!)
When a pandemic breaks out, disease circles the globe, often leaping from species to species. Now scientists think they can forecast where deadly viruses will strike next, using a new tool that predicts genetic mutation.
Supramap doesn't just track the spread of viruses - it tracks how the viruses are mutating as they jump into new hosts and encounter new medicines. Using Supramap, scientists might be able to stay ahead of the virus mutation curve and figure out when to switch medicines as the microbes adapt and develop resistance.

The Natural History Museum reports on Supramap:
"This tool has a lot of predictive power," says Ward Wheeler, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum. "If the movement of a pathogen is related to bird flyways, for example, and those routes are shifting because of something like climate change, we can predict where the disease might logically emerge next."
Operating on parallel programming on high-performance computing systems at Ohio State University and the Ohio Supercomputer Center, Supramap allows any user to input raw genetic sequences of a pathogen's strains and build an evolutionary tree based on mutations. The branches are projected onto the globe with pop-up windows to show how strains mutate over space and time and infect new hosts.
During an earlier phase in Supramap's development, one of the researchers working on it explained how it works:

This week, a paper about Supramap was published in Cladistics. The ability to predict how a virus will mutate over time could be the first step in coming up with a method to stop pandemics in their tracks - or at least, to mitigate the harm they cause by distributing medicines as effectively as possible.
Learn more about Supramap here, and start using it!
via Cladistics [spotted on Natural History Museum]

Send an email to Annalee Newitz, the author of this post, at annalee@io9.com.

Doesn't this sound like the coolest thing EVER?