How does a formerly innocuous and obscure virus like Zika transform itself into a feared pathogen inflicting a devastating impact on global health?
A new UCLA study suggests that the virus possesses the ability to mutate rapidly, allowing the current outbreak to spread swiftly around the world. The Cell Press journal, Cell Host & Microbe, published the findings today in its advance online edition. “The Zika virus has undergone significant genetic changes in the past 70 years,” explained senior author Genhong Cheng, a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “By tracing its genetic mutations, we aimed to understand how the virus is transmitted from person to person and how it causes different types of disease.”
In sequencing the virus, the team identified substantial DNA changes between the strains, showing a major split between the Asian and African lineages, as well as the human and mosquito versions. “We suspect these mutations could help the virus replicate more efficiently, evade the body’s immune response or invade new tissues that provide a safe harbor for it to spread,” said co-author Lulan Wang, a graduate student researcher in Cheng’s laboratory.