Jan. 2, 2010 An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Idaho soon will begin investigating whether viruses that have adapted to higher temperatures -- similar to increases due to global warming -- can jump species more easily.
Thanks to a $911,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, a group that includes a computational biophysicist, an evolutionary biologist and a mathematician will conduct the study. Their results could shed light on the characteristics of host-switching viruses -- such as the avian flu or H1N1 -- in a world of increasing temperatures.
"It's a pretty simple experiment, but it's a wild ... idea," said Holly Wichman, professor of biology and the evolutionary biologist of the group.
"But, if it turns out that our idea is right, it could have enormous implications," added Marty Ytreberg, professor of physics and the computational biophysicist of the group.
The virus being studied is known as bacteriophage ψX174. It was the first genome ever sequenced and often is used by scientists who study evolution because it has a small genome and multiplies quickly. This allows mutations and evolution to occur rapidly.
Through previous experiments together, the team observed mutations that allow the virus to survive in higher temperatures might also increase the stability of the capsid -- the protein shell that encloses the genetic material of a virus. If true, this increased stability may make the virus more mutable, more likely to mutate and thus have an increased ability to jump hosts.
To test the theory, the virus will be subjected to mutations that are known to enable it to survive at higher temperatures. Then, the team will investigate if this ability results in more stabilizing mutations than the original strain that lives at lower temperatures. The team also will investigate whether or not the stabilizing mutations allow the virus to switch hosts more easily.
For this project, Ytreberg will use computational modeling to analyze if the mutations stabilize the capsid. And Paul Joyce, professor of mathematics and statistics, will use statistical and spatial modeling to explore how these beneficial mutations spread through a structured environment.
"It's a really fun project because you work with people that are in different areas," said Wichman. "You get to learn how people in other parts of science think. And since none of us are afraid to ask dumb questions, we just keep making each other explain things until we understand. Having to explain yourself really solidifies your ideas, I think."
Funding comes from federal stimulus money made available through a competitive application process to institutions that receive a Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant. The program is designed to build capacity and increase competitiveness at institutions located in states that have historically received a small proportion of NIH funds.
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