Feb. SciCafe: Mapping Global Pathogens



Dan Janies uses supercomputers to track pathogens in real time. Photo courtesy of Dan Janies. Click to enlarge.

Highly publicized outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola and swine flu raise the specter of pandemic, but these are just the most famous examples of viruses that spread from animals to humans. At February’s SciCafe on Wednesday, February 1, computational biologist Dan Janies and virologist Nathan Wolfe will discuss their efforts to track infectious agents in animals before they reach people. Janies, who helped develop a technology called Supramap, recently answered a few questions about how supercomputers could stop the next global pandemic.

What is Supramap?

Dan Janies: Supramap is an easy-to-use web-based application that allows users all over the world free access to evolutionary software developed at the American Museum of Natural History and Ohio State University that runs on supercomputers from the Ohio Supercomputer Center. It gives us a fresh look at epidemiology by allowing us to track pathogens across space in real time and to make reports, akin to weather maps, of where and when drug-resistant or especially dangerous strains are emerging and spreading.

How have genetic data altered our understanding of pathogens?

Janies: Traditionally, epidemiologists focused on the occurrence of diseases and symptoms in patients. Now, with genetic sequencing becoming prevalent, we can start to focus on the biology of the pathogens themselves. Genetic data allow doctors to focus on the root causes of infectious diseases rather than just treating the symptoms.

And how does Supramap change how we look at and use these genetic data?

Janies: Supramap puts genetic information into geospatial context with other data, such as host populations, to provide a visualization of how pathogens are spread among humans and animals. This not only allows public health officials to see the big picture—Supramaps are also great communication tools for illustrating epidemics to policy makers.

Tags: SciCafe, Q&A