If flu viruses have favoured hook-up spots, then pig pens would be high on the list. Their airways contain molecules that both bird flu viruses and mammalian flu viruses can latch onto. This means that a wide range of flu strains can infect pigs, and if two viruses infect the same cell, they can shuffle their genes to create fresh combinations.
This process is called reassortment. In 2009, it created a strain of flu that leapt from pigs to humans, triggering a global pandemic. If we needed proof that pigs are “mixing vessels” for new and dangerous viruses, the pandemic was it.
Now, scientists have found a new strain of flu in Korean pigs that remphasises the threat. It’s an H1N2, subtly different to the H1N1 virus behind the recent pandemic. But it’s got all the makings of a serious problem. It can kill ferrets – the animal of choice for representing human flu infections. And it spreads through the air between them. I’ve written about this new strain for Nature News, so head over there for more details.
Image by US Dept of Agriculture
You have a sculpture, an intricate piece of modern art, covered in bulges and blisters. Your task is to weave a cover for it. The fit must be exact. You have to fill in every dent and wrap around every lump. Here’s the catch: you have to make this faultless shroud from a single piece of string that must automatically weave itself into the right three-dimensional shape.
This is the challenge that Sarel Fleishman, Timothy Whitehead and Damian Ekiert from the University of Washington have just overcome. Their “sculpture” is a protein called haemagglutinin, or HA, which sits on the surface of flu viruses. Their “shroud” is another protein designed to perfectly fit onto the contours of HA and neutralise it. They have found a way of fashioning these designer proteins on a computer – a feat that could make it easier to create the next generation of anti-flu drugs.
The swine flu pandemic (S-OIV) currently sweeping the world is the result of an influenza H1N1 virus that made the leap from pigs to humans. But this jump is just the latest leg of a journey that has taken over 90 years and shows no signs of finishing.
Today’s pandemic is a fourth-generation descendant of the 1918 flu virus that infected around a third of the world’s population. This original virus is an incredible survivor and one that has spawned a huge legacy of daughter viruses. By importing and exporting its genes, it has contributed to several new strains that have been responsible for at least three further pandemics, including the current one.
In an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, David Morens says, “We are living in a pandemic era that began around 1918.” This is one of two papers that narrate the incredible story of the 1918 virus and its descendants – a thrilling tale of survival, adaptation, extinction and resurrection.
All influenza A viruses contain 8 different genetic segments that they can freely exchange with one another. Morens beautifully compares each virus to a squad of eight players, rather than a single entity. For the viral team to be successful, its eight-person genetic team has to work together. Their individual skills become more or less useful with time and the team will often swap its members for fresh faces that add something new to the mix. In technical terms, they “reassort”.
To do that, viruses need to infect the same cell and they find communal ground in the internal passages of birds, pigs and humans. Animal bodies are essentially viral networking events where different squads can meet and exchange players.
In 1918, one such squad of players went on an infamous world tour. H1N1 influenza viruses had been around for a long time, but the story of the current “pandemic era” really begins in that year. While H1N1 was busy killing humans in our millions, pig farmers at the Cedar Rapids Swine Show in Iowa also noticed something unusual. Even though H1N1 had never been described in pigs before, their herds were suffering from an unusual respiratory illness, whose symptoms were very similar to those afflicting the world’s humans. Swine flu had landed.