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Evolution in action: Why some viruses jump species

Researchers studying strains of a lethal canine virus and a related human virus have determined why the canine virus was able to spread so quickly from cats to dogs, and then from sick dogs to healthy dogs. Their studies may lead to a new understanding of the critical molecular factors that permit viruses to jump from one species to another information that could be helpful in assessing how much of a threat avian influenza is to humans.

In advance online publication of a paper in the April 2006 issue of the Journal of Virology, Laura Shackelton, an HHMI predoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford in England, examined the surprisingly rapid evolution of the B19 erythrovirus, a ubiquitous human parvovirus.

Shackelton's latest paper extends her previous research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2005 on the carnivore parvoviruses, specifically panleukopenia virus (FPLV), a feline virus that crossed over into dogs over 30 years ago. The work was done in collaboration with her advisor, former Oxford professor Edward C. Holmes, who is the senior author on the papers. Holmes recently moved his laboratory to Pennsylvania State University, where Shackelton will join him for postdoctoral research.

Shackelton's work can be considered a genomic analysis of evolution in action. "Viruses don't leave fossils," she explains. "But if you compare the differences between extant viral sequences, you can calibrate the molecular clock."

Viruses penetrate the interior of cells by binding to receptors on the host cell's surface. The binding occurs in much the same way that a key fits into a lock. Sometimes proteins on the outer coat of a virus mutate enough to match the receptors on the cells of species other than ones that the virus usually infects. This is what has happened with avian flu. Once in a new species, the virus either dies out or is preserved and adds mutations that enable it to move from host to host withi
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Contact: Jennifer Donovan
donovanj@hhmi.org
301-215-8859
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
15-Mar-2006


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