Uncovering Genome Mysteries Hopes to Shed Light on Zika and Other Viruses

Uncovering Genome Mysteries is analyzing protein sequences from Zika and related viruses in order to help scientists better understand them. Dr. Wim Degrave, who is deeply involved in Brazil's response to the Zika crisis, gave us this update to describe how these analyses fit into the larger work of Uncovering Genome Mysteries, and how the project could help scientists develop new tools to diagnose and treat Zika virus and similar diseases.


Uncovering Genome Mysteries is examining close to 200 million protein sequences from a wide variety of life forms to better understand how their natural abilities can help solve medical or environmental challenges. This enormous group of proteins includes sequences from the genomes of arboviruses, which are viruses transported by insects such as ticks and mosquitoes, as well as proteins from mosquitoes themselves. Arboviruses include some of the world's most destructive diseases, such as West Nile virus and dengue fever, and many of them pose increasing threats to the health of people around the globe.

The Zika virus is an arbovirus, or mosquito-borne disease, which has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization due to the recent spread of the virus. It is believed to be similar to dengue, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, and West Nile. (These diseases are all part of a subgroup of viruses known as flaviviruses.) There is an almost certain link between the Zika virus in pregnant women and microcephaly and several congenital neurological syndromes in newborn babies. There is probably also a link between Zika and neurologic conditions in infected adults, such as Guillain-€“Barré syndrome. But at this point, little else is known about Zika or its molecular structure.

Analyzing Zika-Related Genomes

Uncovering Genome Mysteries is analyzing the genome of both the Zika virus itself and the genomes of the mosquitoes that spread the disease. By supporting our project, you can help scientists better understand the molecular structure of the virus, which is essential for designing drugs to treat it.

When we launched Uncovering Genome Mysteries only 18 months ago, Zika virus was unknown to most of the globe. Yet as part of our study of arboviruses, we had already included the genome of the Zika virus in our study, and in response to recent urgent health needs, we added additional work units that also include Zika and related viral genomes, most of which became available over the last few months. Additionally, a small set of work units containing the protein sequences for the mosquitoes that spread Zika and related diseases has been added to the Uncovering Genome Mysteries project. Specifically, we want to study the mosquitoes' natural variants, to learn more about their varied capacity to transmit different viruses to humans and how they adapt to different environments or develop resistance to insecticides, and find weaknesses that can lead to new ways to control the spread of mosquitos in urban and rural environments. We hope the additional work units might help in the search for new bio-insecticides to fight the insects that harbor and spread these diseases.

Other Work on Zika

Brazil identified its first cases of Zika in 2015, and authorities swiftly characterized the disease as an epidemic. Our research group here at Fiocruz is involved in several Zika research efforts as part of Brazil's response to this crisis. For example, it is very important for scientists to understand the differences between the strains of Zika that have appeared in various parts of the globe, as this may impact transmission patterns, how the virus spreads and how it affects humans. The data from our World Community Grid analyses can help shed light on these differences; currently, there are 38 full sequences of Zika variants in the World Community Grid datasets, and we expect more to be added in the coming months. By understanding the genomes that are the building blocks of our world and its inhabitants, we can find better ways to diagnose, treat, and eventually prevent viruses such as Zika.

We thank all World Community Grid volunteers for their participation in this project, and will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available.

(Editor's Note: World Community Grid is actively seeking scientists who are conducting research on the Zika virus and could make use of our computing capabilities. Please see this recent article for further information.)

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