Revealing the secrets of bugs by tracking their genetics
One of the areas of research in the global effort to understand the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) is studying its genetics. As the genetic information in viruses changes over time, these studies can tell us about the spread of the infection and also help researchers make predictions about what the symptoms will be like.
In the longer term, when treatments have been developed for COVID-19 the results of the genetic analysis will ensure that the treatments keep pace with any changes in the properties of the virus.
The type of genetic tracking being used to understand coronavirus isn’t new. The genetic tracking uses techniques that many researchers around the world have already been using to understand other infection-causing bugs, including those that cause serious lung infections in cystic fibrosis.
Trust-funded researchers at the University of Cambridge are using genetic tracking to study the bacteria M abscessus, part of the NTM group of infections. In 2016 they showed that M abscessus is passed on through cross-infection in the clinic, rather than people becoming infected from environmental sources. Knowing that this cross-infection happened meant that new protocols were adopted to reduce cross-contamination in CF clinics.
Professors Julian Parkhill and Andres Floto and colleagues are continuing to genetically track M abscessus infection in research within the Innovation Hub on lung heath, a strategic partnership between the Cystic Fibrosis Trust and the University of Cambridge.
This genetic tracking is being used to understand why some strains of the bacteria lead to a more severe form of the infection than others. Knowing which genetic changes in the M abscessus bacteria cause more severe or aggressive infection gives the researchers new ways to develop treatments.
You can read more about the genetic tracking of coronavirus in this clearly explained article, written by experts at UK Research and Innovation, the national funding agency investing in science and research in the UK.
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