Using a gene resurrected from the virus that caused the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, recorded historys most lethal outbreak of infectious disease, scientists have found that a single gene may have been responsible for the devastating virulence of the virus.
Writing today (Oct. 7, 2004) in the journal Nature, virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Tokyo, describes experiments in which engineered viruses were made more potent by the addition of a single gene. The work is evidence that a slight genetic tweak is all that is required to transform mild strains of the flu virus into forms far more pathogenic and, possibly, more transmissible.
The results of the new work promise to help scientists understand why the 1918 pandemic, a worldwide outbreak of influenza that killed 20 million people, spread so quickly and killed so efficiently, says Kawaoka, who has studied influenza viruses for 20 years. The finding also lends insight into the ease with which animal forms of the virus, particularly avian influenza, can shift hosts with potentially catastrophic results.
Yoshihiro Kawaoka | EurekAlert!
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