By Jane Cook
September 6, 2021
The Delta Variant
It would be hard to miss the headlines about the COVID-19 variant B.1.617.2- better known as the Delta variant. As a cousin of the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, the Delta variant causes all of the same symptoms and due to its mutations, is more contagious.
Behind the scenes, however, are the scientists that are identifying these variants among the thousands of viral genome sequences generated every day.
Bioinformatics analysis has played a far larger role in the pandemic than most people realize and is becoming more critical than ever as emerging variants find clever ways to evade the immune system and vaccine protection.
Genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 uses bioinformatics tools originally created by evolutionary biologists. Using what is called “phylogenetics,” genetic sequences, typically of highly conserved genes, are compared to identify key mutations that represent a divergence of a species or evolution of a trait.
Viral phylogenetics uses the same principles but with much more data. Each branching point in the tree represents a mutation in the virus, and each leaf represents a distinct variant.
When the “phylogenetic trees” of the virus are correct and up-to-date, they can quickly and accurately put a new viral mutation into context. For example, researchers can identify if a new mutation will yield any significant change in the virus by comparing where in the genome other mutations have made the virus more or less contagious.
A great example is the emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant announced in the UK in December 2020. Within two hours of the announcement, a researcher at the variant-tracking group Nextstrain had posted why the variant’s mutations mattered and went back through the genomic data to show how it had been spreading.
Viral Genomic Data
Several groups, including Nextstrain, are combining man and computer power to keep up with the flood of viral genomic data. This is critical work- flagging variants of interest or concern before they spread can influence vaccine research, and distribution of medical supplies, and hopefully shorten the duration of the pandemic.
Using the best bioinformatic tools available and shining light on the important work these scientists are doing will be vital to stay ahead of the next major variant before it spreads beyond control. Genomic analysis can keep us one step ahead as we look toward the end of the pandemic.
Jane Cook, Journalist & Content Writer, Bridge Informatics
Jane is a Content Writer at Bridge Informatics, a professional services firm that helps biotech customers implement advanced techniques in the management and analysis of genomic data. Bridge Informatics focuses on data mining, machine learning, and various bioinformatic techniques to discover biomarkers and companion diagnostics. If you’re interested in reaching out, please email [email protected] or [email protected].