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Which Animal Viruses Could Infect People? Computers Are Racing to Find Out


Colin Carlson, a biologist at Georgetown University, has been programming computers to teach themselves about viruses.

Credit: Michael A. McCoy/The New York Times

Colin Carlson, a biologist at Georgetown University, has started to worry about mousepox.

The virus, discovered in 1930, spreads among mice, killing them with ruthless efficiency. But scientists have never considered it a potential threat to humans. Now Dr. Carlson, his colleagues and their computers aren't so sure.

Using a technique known as machine learning, the researchers have spent the past few years programming computers to teach themselves about viruses that can infect human cells. The computers have combed through vast amounts of information about the biology and ecology of the animal hosts of those viruses, as well as the genomes and other features of the viruses themselves. Over time, the computers came to recognize certain factors that would predict whether a virus has the potential to spill over into humans.

Once the computers proved their mettle on viruses that scientists had already studied intensely, Dr. Carlson and his colleagues deployed them on the unknown, ultimately producing a short list of animal viruses with the potential to jump the species barrier and cause human outbreaks.

From The New York Times
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