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Scientists to probe global warming's impact on avian flu virus

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  • Scientists to probe global warming's impact on avian flu virus

    Does global warming help the avian flu virus mutate into more lethal versions? That's the million-dollar question bothering scientists as they embark upon research to shed light on the characteristics of host-switching infectious agents.

    A research team comprising a computational biophysicist, an evolutionary biologist and a mathematician from the University of Idaho (U-I) will soon begin probing these viruses to find an answer.

    '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 under study is known as bacteriophage X174. It was the first genome ever sequenced and is often 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, said an U-I release.

    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 stabilising mutations than the original strain that lives at lower temperatures.

    The team will also investigate whether or not the stabilising mutations allow the virus to switch hosts more easily.

    The salvage of human life ought to be placed above barter and exchange ~ Louis Harris, 1918