New research could allow fast diagnosis of viruses like Ebola and Zika

A new development in molecular biology is a step towards enabling mobile and instant diagnosis of viruses like Ebola or Zika in the field. The Oxford Nanopore MinION device can sequence DNA and RNA in real time, and researchers at the French agriculture research center CIRAD have found a way to use the device as a tool for identifying plant viruses and potentially animal and human viruses too.

The researchers at CIRAD were searching for a way to diagnose viruses quickly and early in the infection process, so they could avoid the time consuming and potentially dangerous process of transferring contaminated samples to a lab. They struck on using the portable sequencer MinION device, which in the last few years since its development has become a common tool for biological analysis techniques like de novo sequencing, targeted sequencing, metagenomics, and epigenetics. The CIRAD team were able to both test and validate that the device could be used in plant virology, making it an invaluable potential tool for diagnosing viruses in real world outbreaks.

“Using a diseased yam plant, it took us just a few hours to sequence the entire genome of two single-strand RNA viruses, a macluravirus and a potyvirus,” CIRAD researcher Denis Filloux said in a statement. This fast and accurate diagnosis technique is a first step to providing real time detection of chronic viruses with a mobile device which can be used even in isolated and remote areas.

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A new technique will make it possible to detect viruses in the field. In this case, a yam plot in Guadeloupe. D. Filloux, Cirad

A key aspect of virus outbreak management is shortening the time between taking a sample of a possibly infected plant and diagnosing it as carrying a particular virus. With this development, this process can be achieved in a shorter time to help public health officials to detect potentially harmful outbreaks at an earlier stage than was previously possible. With the new technique, the device will be able to examine the whole genetic structure of a virus quickly: “The technology is characterized by the production of long nucleotide sequences, which makes it possible to sequence the entire viral genome,” Philippe Roumagnac, a virologist with CIRAD, said in the statement.

This technology would be especially valuable in developing countries where there is often a lack of laboratories which can diagnose viruses and limited understanding of how to manage outbreaks and transport contaminated samples.

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