Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Spreading the Bird Flu Recipe

POPSCI - 5.2.12 by Rebecca Boyle

Flu Virion This negative-stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM) depicts the ultrastructural details of an influenza virus particle, or virion. Cynthia Goldsmith, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Just a handful of genetic mutations can turn bird flu into a highly infectious pathogen that could wreak havoc on humans, according to a new paper published today. It’s the first of two controversial virus mutation papers to get its day in the sun, and it shows how the H5N1 flu could evolve to infect mammals.

To test the virus, researchers led by Masaki Imai and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison combined elements of avian flu with a recent pandemic human flu, the 2009 variant of H1N1 (you may know it as the swine flu). The new flu was capable of passing from experimental ferret to ferret through the air. (Ferrets are considered the best animal model of how flu works in humans.) The sick ferrets lost weight and had respiratory lesions, but they did not die.

"The findings described here will advance our understanding of the mechanisms and evolutionary pathways that contribute to avian influenza virus transmission in mammals," the authors write.

To understand what’s so dangerous about this virus, it helps to understand a bit about how the flu and its variants work. The name describes the molecular components of the virus; so H5N1 flu, for example, is a variant with type 5 hemagglutinin and type 1 neuraminidase proteins.

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