A 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