The University of Aveiro identifies specific DNA sequences of the Ebola virus
José Pichel Andrés/DICYT Specialists in bioinformatics and computational biology of the Institute of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science of the University of Aveiro (Instituto de Engenharia Electrónica e Telemática de Aveiro, IEETA) have identified specific DNA sequences of the Ebola virus that allow the differentiation of the various species of the latter and the distinguishing of the African outbreak of early 2014 from other episodes of the disease. This work, recently published in the scientific journal Bioinformatics, may have future applications in the diagnosis and treatment of Ebola.
The scientists have specifically selected three short DNA sequences that are present in the Ebola virus genome but not in the human genome. In this way, potentially these regions of DNA “can serve to identify the virus in samples of human origin or for the development of safer and more efficient treatments”, as Raquel Silva, one of the directors of the research, explains to DiCYT.
“The sequences that we identify allow us to distinguish between species and outbreaks of the virus”, which means that “our results can be used in the diagnosis”. Moreover, they may be useful as new therapeutic targets because these genome regions are “vital to the reproduction of the virus”, the researcher points out. In any case it is necessary to corroborate these bioinformatic results with new laboratory studies.
The work was carried out by using computational methods that allow the describing of one genome using information from another. To be precise, “we use the sequences of the genomes from the Ebola virus that were deposited on public databases", the researcher comments, to be precise at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) of the United States).
“This shows the importance of the availability of information and the exchanging of data within the scientific community”, the IEETA researcher comments; “without access to the genome sequences we could not have carried out this study”. For this reason, the University of Aveiro also makes available to all scientists the software that it has developed for this research, known as EAGLE, which can be downloaded at http://bioinformatics.ua.pt/software/eagle/.
Validation of the DNA sequences
The next step in this line of research should be the validation of the DNA sequences identified as a means for the diagnosis or treatment of the disease, but for this to occur financing is needed; the team is therefore seeking new partners. Another option would be to apply the same method that has allowed this progress to other pathogens of biomedical interest.
“I believe that we still know very little about the Ebola virus”, comments Raquel Silva, who compares the scanty research in this field with that on other viruses such as the HIV, which has monopolised the interest of the scientific community and the investment of pharmaceutical companies in recent years. In general outbreaks of Ebola are small, but the latest one “has involved over 25,000 cases and 10,000 deaths”, which constitutes “a wake-up call on the need for stepping up research” into a disease that is still incurable. However, this unfortunate situation has also provided “an opportunity to test vaccinations that would take years to arrive under normal circumstances”.
Three minimal sequences found in Ebola virus genomes and absent from human DNA. Raquel M. Silva, Diogo Pratas, Luísa Castro, Armando J. Pinho and Paulo J. S. G. Ferreira. Bioinformatics, 2015. DOI: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btv189