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Using Genomics to Follow the Path of Ebola

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Ebola virus

Caption: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of filamentous Ebola virus particles (blue) budding from a chronically infected VERO E6 cell (yellow-green).
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

Long before the current outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) began in West Africa, NIH-funded scientists had begun collaborating with labs in Sierra Leone and Nigeria to analyze the genomes and develop diagnostic tests for the virus that caused Lassa fever, a deadly hemorrhagic disease related to EVD. But when the outbreak struck in February 2014, an international team led by NIH Director’s New Innovator Awardee Pardis Sabeti quickly switched gears to focus on Ebola.

In a study just out in the journal Science [1], this fast-acting team reported that it has sequenced the complete genetic blueprints, or genomes, of 99 Ebola virus samples obtained from 78 patients in Sierra Leone. This new genomic data has revealed clues about the origin and evolution of the Ebola virus, as well as provided insights that may aid in the development of better diagnostics and inform efforts to devise effective therapies and vaccines.


New Weapon Targets Ancient Foe

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Microscopic image of a long, thin, rod-like bacteria

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Source: Clifton E. Barry III, Ph.D., NIAID, NIH.

Tuberculosis is an ancient scourge that has evolved in lockstep with humans for more than ten millennia. It infected residents of ancient Egypt; remnants of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the deadly bacterium that ravages the lungs and other organs of its victims, have been found in Egyptian mummies dating back 3,000 years. It is considered one of the world’s deadliest diseases.

I’ve had my own experience with TB. As a medical resident in the intensive care unit in North Carolina in 1977, I was exposed to the bacterium during emergency care of a young migrant worker who arrived at our hospital in extremis from internal bleeding. Only after the hemorrhaging was stopped did we discover his advanced tuberculosis. But I’m happy to say we treated him successfully with a battery of drugs, and he walked out of the hospital. My own TB skin test tested positive a few months later, and so I had to take a year’s worth of therapy with isoniazid to wipe out those little microbial invaders. That was all it took.

For the most part, TB cases have been reduced to a trickle in the Western world—thanks to antibiotics—and relegated to the history books with descriptions of ‘consumption’ in nineteen-century England and tales of jail-like sanatoria where those consumptives were quarantined and often died.


How Influenza Pandemics Occur

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Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

Flu season is upon us! Check out this NIH video to see how these pandemics emerge and spread new flu viruses around the globe.


Tracking a Deadly Virus

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If you think that studying the deadly Ebola virus is all about donning a biohazard suit in a high-tech lab, think again. Check out these scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and their collaborators as they travel to a remote village in the Republic of the Congo to search for Ebola and other emerging viruses. Watch them set up camp in the jungle and take blood samples from animals that may harbor these viruses.