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New online map can forecast the location and intensity of global disease outbreaks

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Ohio State, H1N1, GoogleA new online global map could soon help scientists better track and predict outbreaks of infectious diseases like H1N1 much the same way meteorologists can study and forecast the weather. The "Supramap" application illustrates the spread of pathogens and key mutations across time, space and various hosts on a Google Earth map, researchers reported April 9 in the early online edition of Cladistics.

Using data on the sequenced genetic code of H1N1 and other viruses, the evolutionary and geographic map enables tracking of how a virus moves from its origins to different hosts around the world. "Essentially, it’s like a weather map of disease," Daniel Janies, Ohio State associate biomedical informatics professor, says in a YouTube video he and his colleagues created to highlight Supramap’s capabilities. "What we’re able to do with Google Earth is put that in context."

With Supramap, users can submit raw viral genetic sequences and get back a phylogenetic tree of pathogen strains. The resulting tree is then projected by Supramap onto a map of the globe and can be viewed with Google Earth. Each branch in the evolutionary tree is geo-located and time-stamped. Pop-up windows and colored branches show how pathogen strains mutate over space and time and infect new hosts. "If we can get the picture early on of how the virus is evolving to drugs, we can change our strategies, such as using non-pharmaceutical interventions," Janies says.

The more data that researchers can plot using Supramap, which runs on high-performance computing systems at Ohio State and the Ohio Supercomputer Center, the more sophisticated their analysis will be. This includes being able to determine the initial jump of a pathogen into humans, something that has become increasingly important to understand because of growing human-animal contact and global travel. Researchers now know, for example, that Severe Acute Respiratory syndrome (SARS) has a deep evolutionary origin in bats. If the movement of a pathogen is related to bird flight patterns, and those routes are shifting because of something like climate change, researchers might even be able to predict where the disease might logically emerge next.

The above Supramap image depicts the westward spread of avian influenza (H5N1). Red and white tree branches indicate different genotypes, while mutations at each node can be viewed in pop-up windows. Courtesy of Janies et al. 2010 Cladistics online 04-9-10

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  1. 1. sqengineer 7:29 am 04/15/2010

    "The ‘Supramap’ application illustrates the spread of pathogens and key mutations across time, space and various hosts on a Google Earth map, researchers reported April 9 in the early online edition of Cladistics"
    No it does not…it SPECULATES on the spread of pathogens and key mutations across time, space and various hosts on a Google Earth map. Once again, we have another junk-science computer modeling scheme that served the "global warming" crowd so well, by developing senarios that lend themselves to creating conclusions based on biased data. When do we get back to real-time evaluation of the development, spread and mutation of biological and viral pathogens without relying on a computer application to give us promising "research-grant" funding to milk for all it’s worth?

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  2. 2. Johnay 9:52 pm 04/15/2010

    Well, this particular model deals with organizing and visualizing known data on past events, so your rant against "speculating" on future events based on models is doubly misplaced.

    And, to address your obvious agenda, have you gotten back to real-time evaluation of the weather, without relying on computer models? Do you bring along shorts, a parka, and an umbrella every day rather than rely on the day’s computer-modeled forecast?

    Seriously, computer models are just tools. The only difference between computer models and old-fashioned scientific predictions is speed and scale. Turns out that’s a very powerful difference which can allow light to be shed on formerly intractable problems. So let’s keep those research grants flowing – the payback is big.

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  3. 3. Wilan 3:54 am 04/30/2010

    Anybody who thinks computers have gone about as far as they can go had better think again….

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  4. 4. Wilan 6:10 am 04/30/2010

    There is no danger of running out of new ideas. Just a century ago, some of the world’s leading scientists were convinced that all the secrets of the universe had been uncovered, and that the only task remaining was to refine and perfect existing methods. Now the body of knowledge doubles every decade. The more we know, the more we find out how little we actually understand; one good idea generates a hundred more. The danger we face is an overflow of information, not a drought.

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