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"Mutation Revelation" -- The Discovery Files

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Researchers at Michigan State University show a fast-forward view of how certain viruses evolve new and sometimes destructive traits through mutation.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

(Sound effect: tape fast forwarding) Viral Fast-forward.

(Sound effect: theme music) I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files--new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Bird flu: Five mutations away from becoming transmissible between humans. The chances of those five mutations arising all at once are infinitesimally small. But what if they arose sequentially? Researchers at Michigan State have now shown just how easily viruses can gain dangerous mutations.

Working with a virus called lambda, they showed how the disease evolves new ways to attack its host. Lead researcher Justin Meyer:

Justin: Lambda is known to exploit just one receptor on the outer membrane of e. Coli.

So, Meyer took away that receptor.

Justin: And this would pressure the virus to target something new about the cell and to enter the cell through a completely new pathway.

Exactly what it did--evolving a new way to attack e. Coli bacteria in a series of four mutations. And it took about two weeks. A fluke: They re-ran the experiment, and the same thing happened over and over.

Justin: We saw this happen in front of our eyes and we were able to examine how it happened, and figure out why it happened.

Shedding new light on how, under the right conditions, bird flu or other viruses might evolve new functions--new abilities--even deadly new traits.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's national science foundation. Federally sponsored research--brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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