It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Mutivity

Tuesday, December 22 2009

Written by Ken Kingery

MOSCOW, Idaho – An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Idaho soon will begin investigating whether viruses that have adapted to higher temperatures – similar to increases due to global warming – can jump species more easily.

Thanks to a $911,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, a group that includes a computational biophysicist, an evolutionary biologist and a mathematician will conduct the study. Their results could shed light on the characteristics of host-switching viruses – such as the avian flu or H1N1 – in a world of increasing temperatures.

“It’s a pretty simple experiment, but it’s a wild ass idea,” said Holly Wichman, professor of biology and the evolutionary biologist of the group.

“But, if it turns out that our idea is right, it could have enormous implications,” added Marty Ytreberg, professor of physics and the computational biophysicist of the group.

The virus being studied is known as bacteriophage fX174. It was the first genome ever sequenced and often is used by scientists who study evolution because it has a small genome and multiplies quickly. This allows mutations and evolution to occur rapidly.

Through previous experiments together, the team observed mutations that allow the virus to survive in higher temperatures might also increase the stability of the capsid – the protein shell that encloses the genetic material of a virus. If true, this increased stability may make the virus more mutable, more likely to mutate and thus have an increased ability to jump hosts.

To test the theory, the virus will be subjected to mutations that are known to enable it to survive at higher temperatures. Then, the team will investigate if this ability results in more stabilizing mutations than the original strain that lives at lower temperatures. The team also will investigate whether or not the stabilizing mutations allow the virus to switch hosts more easily.

For this project, Ytreberg will use computational modeling to analyze if the mutations stabilize the capsid. And Paul Joyce, professor of mathematics and statistics, will use statistical and spatial modeling to explore how these beneficial mutations spread through a structured environment.

“It’s a really fun project because you work with people that are in different areas,” said Wichman. “You get to learn how people in other parts of science think. And since none of us are afraid to ask dumb questions, we just keep making each other explain things until we understand. Having to explain yourself really solidifies your ideas, I think.”

Funding comes from federal stimulus money made available through a competitive application process to institutions that receive a Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant. The program is designed to build capacity and increase competitiveness at institutions located in states that have historically received a small proportion of NIH funds.
# # #

About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit