Latest Ebola data rule out rapid mutation

May 14, 2015

Image credit: Bryan Denton/Corbis

By Erika Check Hayden

The Ebola virus evolved as it spread through West Africa last year — but its mutation rate did not accelerate, as some had thought, according to an analysis of genetic sequence data published on 13 May in Nature1. The data offer reassurance that the scope of the current epidemic did not make it possible for the virus to evolve into a more virulent or deadlier form.

The virus’s evolution rate during the current epidemic, and whether it is changing in ways that make it easier to transmit, or more or less lethal, has been hotly debated. To address these questions, a team led by Wu-Chun Cao, an epidemiologist at the State Key Laboratory of Pathogen and Biosecurity in Beijing, sequenced 175 Ebola virus genomes from people who were infected with the virus, including some who died.

The samples were collected between 28 September and 11 November 2014 by the China Mobile Laboratory Testing Team, a diagnostic lab deployed by the Chinese government. Cao’s group combined the sequencing data from these specimens with sequences published in August by Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her colleagues2. Sabeti’s study examined virus samples collected from patients in May and June. The combined data allowed Cao and his colleagues to track how the Ebola virus changed as it spread east to west across Sierra Leone. Ebola entered the country in May and reached the capital city, Freetown, in July.

Separate evolutions

The analysis finds that the virus evolved as it spread to new areas. But it did not change at a faster rate than it has in past outbreaks — even though those outbreaks were localized to much smaller areas and infected fewer people. And there is no evidence that Ebola evolved harmful mutations as it spread through Sierra Leone. “This is just the virus doing what it does,” says David Robertson, a computational and evolutionary biologist at the University of Manchester, UK.

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