COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Scientists here have designed a new, interactive map of the spread of the avian flu virus (H5N1) that for the first time incorporates genetic, geographic and evolutionary information that may help predict where the next outbreak of the virus is likely to occur.
In the process, they also tested hypotheses about the nature of specific strains of the virus that appear to be heading westward and have the ability to infect humans.
A team of biomedical experts, led by Daniel Janies, an assistant professor in the department of biomedical informatics, used special software to create an evolutionary tree of the virus's mutations. They used Keyhole Markup Language in Google Earth to project the tree onto the globe and then chose colors and symbols to indicate different hosts that carry the virus and where they live. TimeSpan, another function in Google Earth, allowed them to animate the spread of the virus over the past decade.
The map is chock-full of additional information. Clicking on a specific viral subtype generates a popup window revealing diagnostic mutations that distinguish one strain of the virus from another, and all of the data is linked to the National Institute of Health's GenBank.
"The map gives us a whole new way of seeing the virus in action and understanding what it is and isn't doing," says Janies. "It's enabled us to compare findings about viruses in the real world against pre-existing hypotheses about the spread of H5N1 that come from laboratory studies."
The study appears online this week in the April issue of Systematic Biology.
The avian flu virus was first recognized in wild aquatic birds in Guangdong, China in 1996. It then spread to chickens and humans in Hong Kong the following year. From 1997 until 2005, it emerged in several Southeast Asian countries and spread via multiple hosts throughout central and southern China, Russia, the Middle East and India. To da
Contact: Michelle Gailiun
Ohio State University