February 26, 2007

Two Thousand Influenza Virus Genomes and Counting…

An unhappy man with the flu

The entire genetic blueprints of more than 2,000 human and avian influenza viruses taken from samples around the world have now been completed. The sequences will help scientists understand how influenza viruses evolve and spread, and will aid in the development of new flu vaccines, therapies and diagnostics.

Seasonal influenza, or flu, is a major public health concern in the U.S., accounting for approximately 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations each year. Seasonal flu shots are updated every year to target the latest strains in circulation. Developing these vaccines is challenging, however, because the influenza virus is prone to genetic errors when it replicates, and these mutations can alter the virus enough that vaccines against one strain may not protect against another. Health officials are particularly concerned about the potential for an influenza pandemic caused by the emergence of a new, highly lethal virus strain that is easily transmitted from person to person.

The Influenza Genome Sequencing Project, funded by NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), was initiated in 2004 to help researchers understand how flu viruses evolve, spread and cause disease. The sequencing work has been carried out at the NIAID-funded Microbial Sequencing Center managed by The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). Growing sequencing capacity has enabled the production rate to increase to more than 200 viral genomes per month.

The project just passed the 2,000 genome mark, and the sequencing center will continue to sequence more influenza strains and isolates and to make all the sequence data freely available to the scientific community and the public through GenBank, an Internet-accessible database of genetic sequences maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at NIH's National Library of Medicine (NLM), another major contributor to the project. Many other institutions are also collaborating on the project.

“A few years ago, only limited genetic information on influenza viruses existed in the public domain, and much of the sequence data was incomplete,” says Dr. Maria Y. Giovanni, who oversees the NIAID Microbial Sequencing Centers. “The Influenza Genome Sequencing Project has filled that gap by vastly increasing the amount of influenza sequence data and rapidly making it available to the entire scientific community. Subsequently, there has been a marked increase in the number of scientists worldwide depositing influenza genome sequence data into the public domain.”

NIAID has also funded the BioHealthBase Bioinformatics Resource Center to help analyze and interpret the large quantity of sequence data generated by the Influenza Genome Sequencing Project. In the meantime, data from the Project, as well as all other publicly available influenza sequence data, are also available through NCBI's Influenza Virus Resource, which includes a host of analysis tools for researchers.

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