Discussions around bioinformatics typically center on the development of new drugs and personalized medicine. But the roles are expanding for this powerful computing system that specializes in collecting and analyzing complex biological data. And one of those growing use cases is forensics – also known as crime detection.
The first things that occur to most people in biological data crime sleuthing are DNA and other forensic biology sciences that have been used for decades to identify a perpetrator. Certainly, bioinformatics can enhance and speed results to law enforcement faster than traditional methods. But those are not the only forensic applications bioinformatics can perform.
For example, bioinformatics can be used as a powerful tool in finding the culprits behind a bioweapon or a bioterrorism attack, or conversely in determining the cause wasn’t criminal after all.
In other words, whatever or wherever unleashes a new biological threat on mankind can potentially be identified and tracked down with bioinformatics in record time.
Sleuthing the Wuhan coronavirus
Take, for example, the current public health scare: the coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency on January 30, 2020.
Here’s a short video explaining this new virus and why it’s so scary.
A Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) researcher found that the Wuhan coronavirus, nCoV-2019, is closely related to the SARS virus, and could be referred to as “SARS 2.”
Coronaviruses tend to combine with other coronaviruses to create new types of coronaviruses, making it difficult for researchers to keep up with its evolution – and the chain of intermediate species that help it eventually spread to humans.
For example, the SARS virus began in bats but spread to civet cats before sufficiently evolving to become dangerous to humans. Dr Xiaowei Jiang, lecturer in bioinformatics at XJTLU’s Department of Biological Sciences, believes this current coronavirus also began in bats.
“With a new bat coronavirus genome sequence reported by Dr. Zheng-Li Shi and her team from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 96 percent of the genome sequence is identical to the Wuhan virus. With such high similarity, the possibility that the nCoV-2019 may come from a bat is very high,” he said in a XJTLU news report.
Tracking the source
The question is how did this new virus make the jump to humans?
“This research can lead to a public understanding of where this virus came from and how the outbreak likely started in order to prevent future, similar virus outbreaks,” Jiang said in that report.
“For example, if this nCoV-2019 outbreak in Wuhan is due to selling of wildlife animals and/or their meat in Wuhan markets, then preventing such sales may help reduce future outbreaks.”
But not everyone is convinced that the Wuhan coronavirus occurred naturally or followed in the footsteps of other, earlier coronaviruses. Some allege that the virus was made in a lab at the Wuhan Institute which they also claim is home to a secret biological weapons program. But those allegations are far more likely to center on mere coincidence, a conspiracy theory, or outright fake news. A Foreign Policy news report finds that "conspiracy theories are spreading faster than the coronavirus itself."
However, the beauty in relying on hard data and bioinformatics to sort fact from fiction is that time, effort and resources are not wasted on fruitless endeavors. Quickly and accurately assessing a biological threat, finding a way to cure or mitigate the risks, and potentially tracking it back to its origins are all critical steps in saving lives.
Bioinformatics will likely prove pivotal in identifying the origin of both natural and man-made biological threats for the foreseeable future. In any case, all biological threats are currently analyzed and the results verified repeatedly by entities around the world to prevent mistakes and find life-saving treatments.
“The bat coronaviruses we analysed, which were previously sampled by Chinese scientists among Chinese bat populations, and the first nCoV-2019 genome sequenced by Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center and School of Public Health, in collaboration with the Central Hospital of Wuhan, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute for Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, Chinese Center for Disease Control, and the University of Sydney, were all released on GenBank, a database maintained by the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information,” Jiang said.
Scientists around the world work to confirm that the data and shared analyses are accurate so that misinformation does not cost more human lives. This process is not borne of suspicion or disbelief, but as a matter of scientific thoroughness in the research.
For example, Australian scientists were the first to recreate the virus for testing to augment and verify the data.
"Chinese officials released the genome sequence of this novel coronavirus, which is helpful for diagnosis, however, having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities—it will be a game changer for diagnosis," said The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Dr Julian Druce, Virus Identification Laboratory Head at the Doherty Institute in a statement.
Data sharing and result validations will continue around the globe until the virus is conquered everywhere.
“The virus will be used as positive control material for the Australian network of public health laboratories, and also shipped to expert laboratories working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Europe,” Dr. Druce explained.