Scientists develop 'weather maps' for disease

Researchers have designed a web-based application that can track pathogens -- including disease outbreaks with implications for national security -- as they evolve around the globe.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

I wrote yesterday about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's efforts to develop a cell phone application that could warn users of a hazardous chemical attack.

Now, scientists at Ohio State University and other institutions have announced another innovation with homeland security implications. They've designed a web-based application that can track pathogens -- including disease outbreaks -- as they evolve around the globe.

Published in a recent online issue of the journal Cladistics, Supramap tracks pathogens as they evolve in time and space -- an application touted as an aid to national security agents as they fight against infectious diseases.

The researchers cite the recent outbreaks of SARS and influenza as examples of the importance of genomic sequencing as a method for diagnosing agents of infectious disease. Supramap harnesses that raw data to create an application that can connect the "spread of pathogens and key mutations across time, space and various hosts into a geographic information system," the scientists wrote.

"Supramap does more that put points on a map -- it is tracking a pathogen's evolution," said Daniel A. Janies, an Ohio State associate professor and the paper's first author. "We package the tools in an easy-to-use web-based application so that you don't need a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and computer science to understand the trajectory and transmission of a disease."

Lead author Ward Wheeler, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, said Supramap contains the power of prediction. "If the movement of a pathogen is related to bird flyways, and those routes are shifting because of something like climate change, we can predict where the disease might logically emerge next," he said.

More Supramap resources:

The project was funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, OhioStateUniversity, the Google.org fund of the Tides Foundation and the American Museum of Natural History.

Image: Supramap depicts the westward spread of avian influenza / Janies et al. 2010 Cladistics online 04-9-10

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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