Brisbane, Australia: Instead of simply focussing on human infections, infectious disease researchers can now track the complex interactions, movement and evolution of the pathogens themselves using supercomputers. The researchers are using a new programme called Supramap, which operates on the computing systems at Ohio State University and the Ohio Supercomputer Center.
It incorporates GIS technology so that scientists can see a family tree of different strains of a pathogen overlaid on Google Earth or other maps, according to a study in the journal Cladistics.
Biologist Daniel Janies and his colleagues have tested the programme by studying Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), several types of avian influenza and seasonal influenza. They linked a particular genetic mutation in H5N1 avian influenza to the virus jumping from birds into mammals.
Janies said that the pathogen-tracking abilities of Supramap can be used for medical research and public health or national security decisions, but it can also be used to track changes in animal or plant populations for conservation biology and natural history research.
Janies hopes that the visual presentation of the data will help researchers come up with hypotheses about the spread of a disease and also to communicate their finding in a non-technical way.
However, Michael Reichel, a veterinary epidemiologist from the University of Adelaide in Adelaide, Australia, said that the published work with Supramap was still largely retrospective. “What we really need in emerging infectious disease surveillance is prospective perspectives,” he added.
This programme is also being used to study a haemorrhagic virus attacking fish in the US and Canadian Great Lakes and schistosomiasis infection in China.
Looking at pathogens in a new way
Researchers say that they now understand whether mutations are more likely in certain hosts or geographic locations. They hope to use this information to predict where mutations are more likely to occur. “The goal is to provide a common frame work for testing ideas on how complex interactions of animals, humans and the environment lead to the emergence of diseases,” Janies said.
According to Janies, other programmes exist that map human cases by the appearance of symptoms, but Supramap is focussed on the pathogen itself.
Source: Cosmos Magazine