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Scientists Find Mutations, Gain Insight into Ebola Outbreak

Aug 29, 2014 09:27 AM EDT

Scientists have found more than 300 genetic mutations in the current Ebola virus sweeping across West Africa, gaining insight into how to stop this outbreak and possibly leading to rapid field diagnostic tests, according to new research.

Ebola virus disease (EVD) has infected 2,240 people and resulted in 1,229 deaths since March when the disease broke out in both Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Experts are struggling to control the virus and figure out how to stop it, and this new research may be a big piece of the puzzle.

A team of researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard University, in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation, has sequenced 99 Ebola virus genomes collected from 78 patients diagnosed with Ebola in Sierra Leone during the first 24 days of the outbreak. After sequencing at a depth of 2,000 times on average, they found more than 300 genetic changes that make the 2014 Ebola virus genomes distinct from the viral genomes tied to previous Ebola outbreaks.

This high-resolution view allowed the team to detect multiple mutations that alter protein sequences - potential targets for future diagnostics, vaccines, and therapies.

What's more, the researchers observed sequence variations, which suggests that the current EVD outbreak started from a single introduction into humans, and from there spread from person to person over many months.

In order to control the disease and accelerate response efforts, the research team released the full-length sequences on National Center for Biotechnology Information's (NCBI's) DNA sequence database to make it available to the global scientific community.

"By making the data immediately available to the community, we hope to accelerate response efforts," co-senior author Pardis Sabeti added in a statement.

According to the study, the Ebola strains responsible for the current outbreak likely have a common ancestor, dating back to the very first recorded outbreak in 1976.

While these new developments serve as a step, researchers are quick to point out that they still have a long way to go, and an "extraordinary battle" ahead.

The findings were published in the journal Science.

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