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Mysterious snake disease decoded

the virus went into overdrive after Stenglein joined the DeRisi laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow and took on the project. But before he and DeRisi could find traces of the virus they needed to know the sequence of the boa constrictor genome so they could distinguish snake DNA sequences from viral sequences in the diseased animals. The problem was that there were no snake genomes available.

Thus, their first step was to sequence the entire boa constrictor genome, and they had to start with a snake that they were sure was free of inclusion body disease. At the Academy, Dunker helped in this effort by collecting blood from a boa constrictor named Balthazar, an education animal which was housed separately, had no contact with the rest of the boa snake collection and tested negative for the inclusion body disease.

Substantial help in the sequencing effort came from scientists participating in a friendly competition called the Assemblathon 2, which was sponsored by UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis. Balthazar's DNA was sequenced and a number of groups around the country competed to build (assemble) the most complete genome sequence possible using the raw data.

Characterizing Balthazar's genome paved the way for finding the arenavirus in the midst of millions of other sequences of the snakes' DNA. This "needle in the haystack" problem was solved using custom software written in the DeRisi lab, and made available for free on his website.

This is where the shock came.

The team found two arenavirus strains in the snakesa surprise in itself; but in addition, they observed that theviruses did not look like your ordinary arenaviruses. They looked like distant relatives of other arenaviruses but had protein coats that were more similar to those of Ebola viruses. Like arenaviruses, Ebola virus can cause fatal hemorrhagic fever when transmitted to humans. Neither of those viruses has ever been known to infect reptiles, and although it ha

Contact: Jennifer O'Brien
University of California - San Francisco

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