As the coronavirus spreads around the globe, it has mutated in tiny, subtle ways. Those mutations aren’t cause for concern, and so far, don’t appear to be making the virus any more or less dangerous. But scientists can use those slight changes to track the virus from person to person, and location to location.
“If we identify a new outbreak cluster in one state, and there’s a question of whether it’s related to a previous cluster or not, the small mutational changes can help you figure out if they’re connected,” says Patrick Boyle, a synthetic biologist at Ginkgo Bioworks.
The coronavirus is made up of around 29,000 building blocks of genetic material called nucleotides. Like other biotechnology companies and labs, Ginkgo has the technology to take a sample of the virus and read out the full sequence of those nucleotides. For the most part, the sequence will be the same in each sample. But the virus makes copies of itself within a human host, and sometimes, it can make mistakes — switching one or two nucleotides out for another. The version of the virus with those changes can then be passed on when that person infects someone else.
Ginkgo is repurposing its systems, which normally don’t sequence viruses, to analyze as many samples of the coronavirus as possible. The goal is to help build out the maps that show how the virus jumped from one person to the next. They’re hoping to scale up to be able to publish the full genetic sequence of 10,000 virus samples a day
One challenge in expanding the number of virus sequences available, Boyle says, is obtaining patient samples to analyze. Labs in the US and other countries that are running tests for the virus receive hundreds or thousands of patient samples each day. But the focus of those labs is checking a sample to see if the coronavirus is there — and the patient has COVID-19 — or if it isn’t. The emphasis on testing and diagnosing patients is critical to track the pandemic, Boyle says.
Expanding the number of coronavirus sequences available will give scientists a picture of the outbreak, in the US and around the world. Along with testing, it’s one way scientists can keep track of the virus’s movements — and help to rein it in.
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