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Gene Research Yields Insights Into Ebola Virus

Strain tied to West Africa outbreak has mutated hundreds of times, and only spreads among humans

FRIDAY, Aug. 29, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Genetic research performed during the early days of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has given scientists unprecedented insight into how the virus mutates and spreads.

Researchers report in the Aug. 28 online issue of Science that they have now determined the following: The Ebola strains responsible for the current outbreak likely have a common ancestor, dating back to the very first recorded outbreak of Ebola in central Africa in 1976; the virus is spreading from person to person, an insight that will help guide public health efforts to quell the outbreak; and Ebola has mutated often during the current crisis, undergoing hundreds of genetic changes that separate the current virus from strains detected in previous outbreaks.

The genetic researchers rapidly sequenced and analyzed more than 99 Ebola viruses from 78 patients in Sierra Leone during the first 24 days of the outbreak there. The researchers' efforts have quadrupled the amount of genetic data available on Ebola, creating mounds of new and publicly available information about the DNA structure of the deadly virus, senior study author Pardis Sabeti, M.D., from Harvard University in Boston, told HealthDay.

The team has found more than 300 genetic changes that make the 2014 Ebola virus distinct from the strains tied to previous Ebola outbreaks. They also have found evidence that the Ebola outbreak started from a single introduction into humans, and has subsequently spread from person to person over many months. Animals are not helping spread Ebola. The ongoing Ebola outbreak has infected 3,069 people and claimed the lives of 1,552, according to the World Health Organization.

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