Viruses that have adapted to higher temperatures can jump species more easily, which a team of scientists is all set to investigate, could shed light on the characteristics of host-switching viruses such as the avian flu or H1N1.
The team, which consists of a computational biophysicist, an evolutionary biologist and a mathematician, is from the University of Idaho.
According to Marty Ytreberg, professor of physics and the computational biophysicist of the group, "If it turns out that our idea is right, it could have enormous implications."
The virus being studied is known as bacteriophage ?X174. It was the first genome ever sequenced and often is used by scientists who study evolution because it has a small genome and multiplies quickly.
This allows mutations and evolution to occur rapidly. Through previous experiments together, the team observed mutations that allow the virus to survive in higher temperatures might also increase the stability of the capsid - the protein shell that encloses the genetic material of a virus.
If true, this increased stability may make the virus more mutable, more likely to mutate and thus have an increased ability to jump hosts.
To test the theory, the virus will be subjected to mutations that are known to enable it to survive at higher temperatures.
Then, the team will investigate if this ability results in more stabilizing mutations than the original strain that lives at lower temperatures.
The team also will investigate whether or not the stabilizing mutations allow the virus to switch hosts more easily.
For this project, Ytreberg will use computational modeling to analyze if the mutations stabilize the capsid.
Paul Joyce, professor of mathematics and statistics, will use statistical and spatial modeling to explore how these beneficial mutations spread through a structured environment.