Ebola: Mathematicians play a vital role in the quest to develop vaccination
Loretta Florance interviewed several of AMSI BioInfoSummer 2014 Speakers about the important role mathematicians and statisticians play in the current battle against Ebola.
Loretta Florance, ABC News
Friday, 5 December 2014
Images of medical workers clad in protective gear have become synonymous with the global fight against Ebola, but a long way from the frontline, mathematicians are unlocking the secrets of what makes the virus tick.
Throughout this week researchers have gathered in Melbourne to share what they know about the field of bioinformatics.
“Bioinformatics brings together mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists and biologists to address some of the big problems in the life sciences,” Dr Jonathan Keith from Monash University said.
Dr Keith, a statistician, said if you considered the eradication of Ebola to be a battle, bioinformatics provided the back up for the foot soldiers on the ground.
“You’ve got the frontline people, but you’ve got whole layers of people behind them, it is an amazing thing, the way society organises things,” he said.
“I think they’re incredibly brave to be going into the battle zone – I guess we’re back room support.”
They have been providing that support, by examining the virus up close, taking small sequences of DNA molecules and working out how they fit together, using mathematics.
“When a long DNA molecule is sequenced, only small parts are sequenced at a time, and these need to be assembled into a much longer sequence, the entire genome,” Dr Keith said.
“It’s like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, where you have a few pieces missing, some pieces duplicated, lots of overlapping pieces.
“Developing algorithms to accurately assemble those pieces together is known as assembly.”
Five months after the latest outbreak of Ebola emerged in West Africa, researchers from the UK, Sierra Leone and Nigeria published a paper detailing the sequences of 99 Ebola virus genomes from 78 patients in Sierra Leone.
Dr Barbara Holland, from the University of Tasmania, said that project started with biologists putting their lives at risk to collect specimens of the virus.
“It really begins with people on the front line collecting samples, so you can actually get the sequences,” Dr Holland said.
“On that author list on that paper, I noticed five of the authors died of the virus, so that’s the pretty dangerous part.
“And then once you’ve got the sequences, that’s the point where you might turn to a bioinformatician – a mathematician or a statistician.
“As a mathematician working with biological data, it usually arrives in a very unexciting form of being a giant text file full of characters of A,C, G and T.
“At that point you tend to use some good piece of software to try to invert relationships visualise what’s been going on.”
A month after that paper was published, the University of California, Santa Cruz released more than 100 Ebola virus genomes online “in response to a request for help from vaccine researchers.”
“That’s a fabulously useful tool for life science researchers because it means that they can look for patterns within those genomes, try to understand how they’ve evolved and how the disease has spread,” Dr Keith said.