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Broad Institute analyzes Ebola genomes

At the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, in a lab run by accomplished computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti ’97, researchers have collaborated with institutions in the U.S. and abroad to sequence and analyze more than 99 Ebola virus genomes collected by fellow scientists in Sierra Leone. They are on the lookout for mutations that could aid in developing new treatment options for Ebola, or that could serve as indications that the virus is evolving to become more deadly.

Contained within the virus’s 19,000 base-pair genome, the team has found more than 300 genetic changes that separate the 2014 Ebola virus from its predecessors. Of interest is one particular cluster of mutations which, having outlasted other genetic variations, could possibly be conferring some sort of genetic advantage to the virus.

Sabeti’s team has been researching Ebola and the similar Lassa fever virus in West Africa for years, working closely with the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone. When they were informed of Ebola’s presence in the city, they were quick to provide technical assistance to their African colleagues and obtain blood samples from Ebola patients for sequencing.

The team’s results were reported online in the journal Science, but were also made available before publication on the National Center for Biotechnical Information’s DNA sequence database. According to the Broad Institute’s website, the team hopes to accelerate response efforts by making the data available to the scientific community.

Five of the African coauthors of the Science paper died after they contracted the virus themselves, among them Dr. Humarr Khan, head of the Kenema hospital’s Lassa program.

On the Broad Institute’s website, Sabeti wrote, “There is an extraordinary battle still ahead, and we have lost many friends and colleagues already … transparency and partnership is one way we hope to honor Humarr’s legacy.”

Although the rate of Ebola transmission in West Africa appears to have leveled off, the virus is not yet contained, with around 360 new cases being reported in the first week of January according to the World Health Organization.

—Jennifer F. Switzer