The near pandemic of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that occurred in 2002/2003 underlined the need for vigilance in understanding and containing the global spread of pathogens. Genomic sequencing is an important tool in characterising novel pathogens but, to best understand the etiology of epidemics, genetic information must be integrated with host biology and geography. To this end, researchers at Ohio State University have developed a web-based application that allows users to visualise genetic and evolutionary information about organisms that cause infectious diseases as they spread across the globe.
The application, Supramap, was initially created to track the avian influenza virus, H5N1, and has more recently been use to monitor the spread of the H1N1 virus. With the H5N1 virus, mapping a mutation (Glu627Lys) in the PB2 protein supported the hypothesis that this mutation allows for increased replication of the virus in mammals but not that viruses with this mutation were moving westwards.
The application is able to calculate and project evolutionary trees for pathogens onto geographic information systems such as Google Earth. The resultant ‘weather maps for disease’ will allow scientists and public health officials to see when and where pathogens spread, jump between host species, and evolve to become drug-resistant. The development team hope to receive genomic and geographical data about pathogens from around the world and provide regularly updated maps that could determine global hotspots for the emergence of dangerous pathogens and indicate, for example, where and when particular antiviral drugs would be effective. The application is easy to use and researchers can submit raw sequence data to create a phylogenic tree that can be projected onto a map of the globe and viewed with Google Earth. As with all models, the more data that can be collected, the more sophisticated and accurate the analysis will be.
More details about the Supramap project are published in the journal Cladistics.