Life Science Unlocking the coronavirus ‘blueprint’: CSIRO scientists crack genetic codes of SARS-CoV-2 virus
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Unlocking the coronavirus ‘blueprint’: CSIRO scientists crack genetic codes of SARS-CoV-2 virus

Stock image of the coronavirus and DNA strands.
Victoria's coronavirus death toll has risen to 18. Photo: Getty
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Researchers from Australia’s national science agency have unveiled a new approach to analysing the genetic codes – or the blueprint – of the coronavirus.

CSIRO scientists have discovered a way to pinpoint differences among the thousands of genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, a peer-reviewed paper published in the Transboundary and Emerging Diseases journal on Monday has revealed.

Often referred to simply as “the coronavirus”, SARS-CoV-2 is the scientific name for the virus that causes COVID-19 (coronavirus disease).

Titled “Supporting pandemic response using genomics and bioinformatics: A case study on the emergent SARS-CoV-2 outbreak”, the paper outlines how CSIRO researchers created a data visualisation platform that can shed light on evolving strains of the virus.

The findings will aid in the global battle against the coronavirus by allowing researchers to better understand how strains of the virus develop, and helping them identify new clusters of the virus.

‘The blueprint’: Codes hold keys to beating virus

CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall said knowing the genetic code of the coronavirus was key to combatting it.

Analysing global data on the published genome sequences of the coronavirus will help fast-track understanding of this complex disease, he said.

The more we know about this virus, the better armed we’ll be to fight it,” Dr Marshall said.

“This highly complex analysis of the genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has already helped to determine which strains of the virus are suitable for testing vaccines under way at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness in Geelong – the only high biocontainment facility of its kind in the southern hemisphere.”

As the virus evolves, having “the blueprint” becomes increasingly important, CSIRO’s bioinformatics team leader Dr Denis Bauer said.

This is because the genetic code holds instructions about the behaviour of the virus and what kind of disease it can cause.

Globally there is now a huge amount of individual virus sequences,” Dr Bauer said. 

“Assessing the evolutionary distance between these data points and visualising it helps researchers find out about the different strains of the virus – including where they came from and how they continue to evolve.”

How CSIRO scientists cracked the codes

The CSIRO researchers developed a data visualisation platform, underpinned by bioinformatics algorithms originally used to analyse the human genome.

This allowed them to identify differences among the thousands of genetic sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The first 181 published genome sequences from the current COVID-19 outbreak were analysed to understand how changes in the virus could affect its behaviour and impact, explained paper author Professor S.S. Vasan.

“This RNA virus is expected to evolve into a number of distinct clusters that share mutations, which is what we have confirmed and visualised,” said Professor Vasan, who is leading the CSIRO’s SARS-CoV-2 virus work and vaccine evaluation studies.

“At this time, we do not expect it will affect the development and evaluation of COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and diagnostics, but it is important information to monitor as preclinical and clinical studies progress.

“To enable this, we are calling on the international research community to share de-identified details of case severity and outcome, and other relevant metadata such as co-morbidities and smoking status, alongside the genomic sequences of the virus.”

CSIRO’s Australian e-Health Research Centre chief executive David Hansen said the work shows the importance of cross-collaboration between the established and emerging disciplines of bioinformatics, genomics, vaccinology and virology.

“The advantage of the data visualisation platform is that it highlights evolving genetic mutations of the virus as it continues to change and adapt to new environments,” Dr Bauer said.

“The more informed we are about the genetic differences and their likely consequences on the progression of the disease, the better we can tackle the disease with diagnostics and treatments.”