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Virus discovery helps scientists predict emerging diseases

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23 September 2011

Fresh insight into how viruses such as SARS and flu can jump from one species to another may help scientists predict the emergence of diseases in future.

Researchers, partly funded by BBSRC, have shown that viruses are better able to infect species that are closely related to their typical target species than species that are distantly related.

Their results suggest that when diseases make the leap to a distant species - such as bird flu infecting humans - they may then spread easily in species closely related to the new victim, regardless of how closely related these are to the original target species.

Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge looked at how relationships between species might determine the spread of an important group of emerging diseases, known as RNA viruses. This group of diseases includes HIV, SARS and flu.

By infecting more than 50 species of flies with three different viruses, the researchers showed that species closely related to a virus's usual target species were more susceptible than distantly related flies. They also showed that groups of flies that were closely related were similarly susceptible to the same viruses.

The study, which was also funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society, was published in the journal PLoS Pathogens.

Dr Ben Longdon of the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences, who led the study, said: "Emerging diseases such as SARS, HIV and some types of flu have all got into humans from other species. Understanding how diseases jump between different species is essential if we want to predict the appearance of new diseases in the future."

ENDS

Notes to editors

The University of Edinburgh is a charitable body, registered in Scotland, with registration number SC005336.

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .

External contact

Catriona Kelly, Press and PR Office, The University of Edinburgh

tel: 0131 651 4401