Careful study of changes in the genetic make-up of the SARS virus through the recent epidemic has allowed researchers from China and the University of Chicago to bolster the evidence for the animal origins of SARS and to chart three phases of the viruss molecular evolution as it gradually adapted to human hosts, becoming more infectious over time.
The earliest phase involved cases that appeared to be independent and featured viral genomes identical to those found in animal hosts, the researchers report in Science Express, the online version of the journal Science. The second phase, marked by clusters of human-to-human transmission, reveals how the virus quickly adapted to its human hosts. The third phase involved selection and stabilization, as the virus gravitated toward one common genotype that predominated through the end of the epidemic.
"What we see is the virus fine-tuning itself to enhance its access to a new host: humans," said study co-author Chung-I Wu, Ph.D., professor and chairman of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. "This is a disturbing process to watch, as the virus improves itself under selective pressure, learning to spread from person to person, then sticking with the version that is most effective."
John Easton | EurekAlert!
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