Scientists Trace the Evolution and Origins of the Deadly H7N9 Flu Virus

First Posted: Dec 30, 2014 08:36 AM EST

Scientists may have just managed to identify the changes in the H9N2 flu virus in chickens that caused the emergence of the deadly H7N9 strain. The findings reveal further insight into how these diseases evolve, which could help with future treatments.

The H9N2 flu virus has plagued poultry farms for decades in China. In 2013, though, something changed. The virus evolved into the H7N9 influenza virus, which sickened more than 375 people. That's why researchers decided to take a closer look to find out how this evolution occurred.

The scientists focused on the H9N2 chicken virus, which causes egg production to drop and leaves chickens vulnerable to deadly co-infections. The researchers used whole genome sequencing to track the evolution of this virus between 1994 and 2013. The analysis itself involved thousands of viral sequences that showed that the genetic diversity of H9N2 viruses fell sharply in 2009. From 2010 to 2013, the H9N2 virus emerged as the predominant subtype.

"Sequencing the viral genome allowed us to track how H9N2 evolved across time and geography to contribute to the H7N9 virus that emerged as a threat to human health in 2013," said Robert Webster, one of the researchers, in a news release. "The insights gained from this collaboration suggest that tracking genetic diversity of H9N2 on poultry farms could provide an early warning of emerging viruses with the potential to spark a pandemic."

The findings reveal a bit more about the evolution of this virus. This, in turn, may help with preventative measures in the future to keep viruses from evolving and spreading to human populations. In addition, it may allow scientists to develop better treatments in the future.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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