Posts Tagged ‘genome sequencing’

The 1918 flu: Part 3: Gene sequencing and reconstructing the virus

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

here's a starting point

So how do you re-create a virus? Or at least understand how it did what it did?

In the previous post I brought us up to 1995 when Jeffery K Taubenberger, who had received a combined MD/PhD degree at the Medical College of Virginia in 1986-87, and then went to the National Cancer Institute for pathology training, got interested in the 1918-1919 influenza virus.  He used the technique known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR ) which allows a researcher to make many copies of a short segment of DNA inexpensively (If you click on the link you can experience PCR yourself). It was invented by a scientist named Kary Mullis who won a Nobel Prize in 1993 for his novel approach to genetic information.

Taubenberger and his associates went to the National Tissue Repository (NTP) and found 70 of the 100 autopsy files from the pandemic had tissue samples; 13 of these seemed candidates for recovering RNA and two actually yielded suitable RNA fragments. Data from the first case showed the virus was an H1N1 subtype and the second NTP tissue plus that obtained by Hultin in Alaska enabled the next nine years of the project, sequencing the genome of the virus.

The process is described in the Human Genome Project Information (HGP) packet online, but in brief  the genetic material is broken into small chunks, each of which is used as a template, a model to be copied. Those models allow the research team to make duplicate fragments that have slight differences in which chemical bases (with abbreviations A, T, C, and G for DNA and U substituting for T in RNA) are present. Other steps, many of which are now automated, allow the re-creation of the sequence, the pattern, of the bases. In 2006 the HGP group finished enormous task of mapping the DNA sequence for all 24 human chromosomes.

In the meantime Taubenberger and his colleagues had moved into the field of reverse genetics technology, trying to find out what physical characteristics (the scientific term is phenotype) are due to a particular gene, by slightly altering the gene's structure. Their 2007 paper, available in PubMed Central, a free digital database of full-text scientific literature in biomedical and life sciences, describes their efforts to sequence the entire genome (all of the biological information needed to build and maintain a living example of that organism) of the 1918-1919 influenza virus.

Then they could perform actual experiments with viruses that had at least one of the 1918 flu virus genes. They were very careful with this work; their research was performed two labs that had been through the laborious certification process as BioSafety Level 3 or higher. The new viruses that had all eight genes from the 1918 flu were considerably more damaging, in animals at least, than those that had less than the full complement of genes.

Their conclusions, at this point, were fascinating: the 1918 virus was likely brand new, at least to mankind and came from an avian source, but which bird was involved is unknown. They haven't been able to determine yet exactly why the human infection was so deadly.

It could be a deadlier version of this one

They think we're at a mid-point in understanding the worst flu pandemic and we clearly need to learn more about it.

Why? Because other influenza virus mutations will eventually be coming our way.


The 1918 flu virus and its descendants: Part 2 Rediscovering the culprit

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

many other major pandemics were associated with rodents, but not the 1918 flu

I re-read my last post a day after writing it and amended the first line, since I found it misleading. It was the worst flu pandemic ever, but I knew that smallpox, the Black Plague, AIDS, malaria and perhaps even typhus each have caused nearly as many or even more deaths over a period of years. I eventually found a rather strange, non-medical website with the "7 Worst Killer Plagues in history," and confirmed my belief that no other bacteria or virus had wreaked as much havoc in brief span of time as the 1918-1919 H1N1 influenza virus.

I wanted to find out what happened to that highly pathogenic organism and, after searching the web, realized the PBS article on the "Spanish flu" was a good place to start. It mentions that the influenza virus was not identified until 1933 and that the actual genetic identity of the particular strain involved in that pandemic (as opposed to the basic type...H1N1) was not identified for many years. The influenza virus responsible for the 1918-1919 pandemic has had many descendants, none as deadly as their ancestor.

In 1950, Johan V Hultin, a graduate student starting his doctoral studies in microbiology, got a clue from a visiting professor who suggested hunting for the virus in bodies buried 32 years prior in the permafrost of the Arctic. Hultin and his faculty advisor traveled to Alaska where flu among the Inuits had been especially deadly with 50 to 100% death rates in five villages.

early days in the Far North

Gold miners, under contract with the Territorial government, had served as grave diggers in 1918-1919 and tissue samples were recovered from four bodies exhumed in 1951. Pathology slides fit with viral lung damage and, in some cases, secondary bacterial pneumonia. But tissue cultures from the samples did not cause disease in ferrets and no influenza virus was recovered.

It wasn't until 1995 that science had advanced enough to for researchers to start the work necessary to identify the virus's unique features. Jeffrey Taubenberger, a molecular pathologist then working at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), began a ten-plus-year-long project starting with autopsy tissues from the time of the pandemic that had been preserved in the National Tissue Repository. His project was stimulated by a paper published in the journal Science in February, 1995, in which preserved tissue samples from the famous British scientist John Dalton (often called the father of modern atomic theory) were examined. Dalton was color-blind and had donated his eyes at his death in 1844 to determine the cause of the defect; his DNA was studied 150 years later and the resultant publication gave Taubenberger the impetus to do the same with the flu virus.

Hultin read the first paper from Taubenberger's group, wrote to him and eventually went back to Alaska to exhume more flu victims. One was an obese woman whose lungs had the findings of acute viral infection. Samples of these permafrost-preserved tissue had RNA incredibly similar to those obtained from the AFIP National Tissue repository.

And so began an amazing chapter in the history of virology.