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South Africa Study Shows Power of Genomic Surveillance Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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COVID-19 testing in South Africa
Credit: iStock/Thomas Faull

Considerable research is underway around the world to monitor the spread of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. That includes the variant B.1.351 (also known as 501Y.V2), which emerged in South Africa towards the end of 2020 [1, 2]. Public health officials in South Africa have been busy tracing the spread of this genomic variant and others across their country. And a new analysis of such data reveals that dozens of distinct coronavirus variants were already circulating in South Africa well before the appearance of B.1.351.

A study of more than 1,300 near-whole genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2, published recently in the journal Nature Medicine, shows there were in fact at least 42 SARS-CoV-2 variants spreading in South Africa within the pandemic’s first six months in that country [3]. Among them were 16 variants that had never before been described. Most of the single-letter changes carried by these variants didn’t change the virus in important ways and didn’t rise to significant frequency. But the findings come as another critical reminder of the value of genomic surveillance to track the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to identify any potentially worrisome new variants and to inform measures to get this devastating pandemic under control.

SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in South Africa on March 5, 2020, in a traveler returning from Italy. By November 2020, despite considerable efforts to slow the spread, more than 785,000 people in South Africa were infected, accounting for about half of all reported COVID-19 cases on the African continent.

Recognizing the importance of genomic surveillance, researchers led by Houriiyah Tegally and Tulio de Oliveira, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, wasted no time in producing 1,365 near-complete SARS-CoV-2 genomes by mid-September, near the end of the coronavirus’s first peak in the country. Those samples had been collected in hundreds of clinics over the course of the pandemic in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces, offering a broad picture of the spread and emergence of new variants across the country.

The data revealed three main variants, dubbed B.1.1.54, B.1.1.56, and C.1, that were responsible for 42 percent of all the infections in South Africa’s first wave. Of the 16 newly described variants, most carried single-letter changes that haven’t been identified in other countries.

The majority of changes were what scientists refer to as “synonymous,” meaning that they don’t change the structure or function of any of the virus’s essential proteins. The exception is the newly identified C.1, which includes 16 single-letter changes compared to the original sequence from Wuhan, China. One of those 16 changes swaps a single amino acid for another on SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein. That’s notable because the spike protein is a key target of antibodies and also is essential to the virus’s ability to infect human cells.

In fact, four of the most prevalent variants in South Africa all carry this same mutation. The researchers also saw three other changes that would alter the spike protein in different ways, although the significance of these for viral spread and our efforts to stop it isn’t yet clear.

Importantly, the data show that the bulk of introductions to South Africa happened early on, before lockdown and travel restrictions were implemented in late March. Subsequently, much of the spread within South Africa stemmed from hospital outbreaks. For example, an outbreak of the C.1 variant in the North West Province in April ultimately led this variant to become the most geographically widespread in South Africa by the end of August. Meanwhile, an earlier identified South African-specific variant, B.1.106, first identified in April, vanished altogether after outbreaks were controlled in KwaZulu-Natal Province, where the researchers reside.

Genomic surveillance has remarkable power for understanding the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and tracking the dynamics of its transmission. Tegally and de Oliveira’s team notes that this type of intensive genomic surveillance now can be used on a large scale across Africa and around the world to identify new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and to develop timely measures to control the spread of the virus. They’re now working with the African CDC to expand genomic surveillance across Africa [4].

Such genomic surveillance was crucial in the subsequent identification of the B.1.351 variant in South Africa that we’ve been hearing so much about, with its potential to evade our current treatments and vaccines. By picking up on such concerning mutations early through genomic surveillance and understanding how the virus is spreading over time and space, the hope is we’ll be better informed and more adept in our efforts to get this pandemic under control.

References:

[1] Emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[2] Emergence and rapid spread of a new severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) lineage with multiple spike mutations in South Africa. Tegally H, Wilkinson E, Giovanetti M, Iranzadeh A, Bhiman J, Williamson C, de Oliveira T, et al. medRxiv 2020 Dec 22.

[3] Sixteen novel lineages of SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa. Tegally H, Wilkinson E, Lessells RJ, Giandhari J, Pillay S, Msomi N, Mlisana K, Bhiman JN, von Gottberg A, Walaza S, Fonseca V, Allam M, Ismail A, Glass AJ, Engelbrecht S, Van Zyl G, Preiser W, Williamson C, Petruccione F, Sigal A, Gazy I, Hardie D, Hsiao NY, Martin D, York D, Goedhals D, San EJ, Giovanetti M, Lourenço J, Alcantara LCJ, de Oliveira T. Nat Med. 2021 Feb 2.

[4] Accelerating genomics-based surveillance for COVID-19 response in Africa. Tessema SK, Inzaule SC, Christoffels A, Kebede Y, de Oliveira T, Ouma AEO, Happi CT, Nkengasong JN.Lancet Microbe. 2020 Aug 18.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Houriiyah Tegally (University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa)

Tulio de Oliveira (University of KwaZulu-Natal)


Study Shows Genes Unique to Humans Tied to Bigger Brains

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cortical organoid

Caption: Cortical organoid, showing radial glial stem cells (green) and cortical neurons (red).
Credit: Sofie Salama, University of California, Santa Cruz

In seeking the biological answer to the question of what it means to be human, the brain’s cerebral cortex is a good place to start. This densely folded, outer layer of grey matter, which is vastly larger in Homo sapiens than in other primates, plays an essential role in human consciousness, language, and reasoning.

Now, an NIH-funded team has pinpointed a key set of genes—found only in humans—that may help explain why our species possesses such a large cerebral cortex. Experimental evidence shows these genes prolong the development of stem cells that generate neurons in the cerebral cortex, which in turn enables the human brain to produce more mature cortical neurons and, thus, build a bigger cerebral cortex than our fellow primates.

That sounds like a great advantage for humans! But there’s a downside. Researchers found the same genomic changes that facilitated the expansion of the human cortex may also render our species more susceptible to certain rare neurodevelopmental disorders.


Finding Brain Circuits Tied to Alertness

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Everybody knows that it’s important to stay alert behind the wheel or while out walking on the bike path. But our ability to react appropriately to sudden dangers is influenced by whether we feel momentarily tired, distracted, or anxious. How is it that the brain can transition through such different states of consciousness while performing the same routine task, even as its basic structure and internal wiring remain unchanged?

A team of NIH-funded researchers may have found an important clue in zebrafish, a popular organism for studying how the brain works. Using a powerful new method that allowed them to find and track brain circuits tied to alertness, the researchers discovered that this mental state doesn’t work like an on/off switch. Rather, alertness involves several distinct brain circuits working together to bring the brain to attention. As shown in the video above that was taken at cellular resolution, different types of neurons (green) secrete different kinds of chemical messengers across the zebrafish brain to affect the transition to alertness. The messengers shown are: serotonin (red), acetylcholine (blue-green), and dopamine and norepinephrine (yellow).

What’s also fascinating is the researchers found that many of the same neuronal cell types and brain circuits are essential to alertness in zebrafish and mice, despite the two organisms being only distantly related. That suggests these circuits are conserved through evolution as an early fight-or-flight survival behavior essential to life, and they are therefore likely to be important for controlling alertness in people too. If correct, it would tell us where to look in the brain to learn about alertness not only while doing routine stuff but possibly for understanding dysfunctional brain states, ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Happy New Year: Looking Back at 2016 Research Highlights

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Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2016Happy New Year! While everyone was busy getting ready for the holidays, the journal Science announced its annual compendium of scientific Breakthroughs of the Year. If you missed it, the winner for 2016 was the detection of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago! It’s an incredible discovery, and one that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.

Among the nine other advances that made the first cut for Breakthrough of the Year, several involved the biomedical sciences. As I’ve done in previous years (here and here), I’ll kick off this New Year by taking a quick look of some of the breakthroughs that directly involved NIH support:


Talking Music and Science with Yo-Yo Ma

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It’s not every day that an amateur guitar picker gets to play a duet with an internationally renowned classical cellist. But that was my thrill this week as I joined Yo-Yo Ma in a creative interpretation of the traditional song, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” Our short jam session capped off Mr. Ma’s appearance as this year’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture.

The event, which counts The Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou, and Atul Gawande among its distinguished alumni, this year took the form of a conversation on the intersection of music and science—and earned a standing ovation from a packed house of researchers, patients, and staff here on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus in Bethesda, MD.


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