In a rather massive feat, scientists have reported the sequences for all of the 99 known strains of cold virus.
Unravelling the code of nature's most ubiquitous human pathogen, the researchers have exposed in precise detail, all of the molecular features of the many variations of the virus responsible for the common cold.
The team-consisting of experts from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the J. Craig Venter Institute-conducted the study to unravel the code for the inescapable ailment that makes us all sneeze, cough and sniffle with regularity.
The study to sequence and analyse the cold virus genomes lays a foundation for understanding the virus, its evolution and three-dimensional structure.
And most importantly, the work will expose the vulnerabilities that could lead to the first effective cold remedies.
We've had bits and pieces of these things for a long time. Now, we have the full genome sequences and we can put them into evolutionary perspective, said Ann Palmenberg, the lead author of the new study.
She added: We know a lot about the common cold virus. But we didn't know how their genomes encoded all that information. Now we do, and all kinds of new things are falling out.
The genetic sequence of pathogens, such as viruses, can be used to help predict the potential virulence of new emerging agents of disease. A sequenced genome can also show an organism's vulnerabilities.
In the case of the cold virus, the sequenced genomes can show which receptors on cells the viruses bind to, information that can be used to design drugs that could potentially help prevent or mediate infection as viruses require access to host cells to do their dirty work and make new viruses.
This gives us the molecular basis for drug activity. We can predict which drugs can take them out, said Palmenberg.
Stephen B. Liggett, the new study's senior author said that the new sequences may help science understand the etiology of asthma as recent studies suggest rhinovirus infection in children can reprogram the immune system to develop asthma by adolescence.
Palmenberg said that the newly sequenced viruses also show why it is unlikely that they will ever have an effective, all-purpose cold vaccine.
She said that the existing reservoir of viruses worldwide is huge and, according to the new study, they have a tendency to swap genetic sequences when more than one virus infects the cells-a phenomenon that can lead to new virus strains and clinical manifestations.
Having sequenced the complete genomes of these things we now know you can be infected by more than one virus at a time and that they can recombine their genes. That's why we'll never have a vaccine for the common cold.
Nature is very efficient at putting different kinds of paint on the viruses, explained Palmenberg.
With cold virus sequences in hand, as well as some idea of how they exchange genetic information, it may be possible to predict the pathogenic potential of a virus and devise antiviral agents to thwart infection.
The study has been published in the journal Science.