Researchers use Google Earth to track bird flu

Published 9 May 2007

Supermap” brings together known epidemiological research with an easy-to-use mapping system

The big trend these days for those interested in modelling data of any kind is to take advantage of the free services provided by Google Maps and Google Earth — the result being known as a mash-up, because the statistical data set is melded with the satelite imagery. The technology seems highly suited for mapping epidemiological events, and that is exactlty what researchers at the Universities of Colorado and Ohio State think, too. According to professor Robert Guralnick, his team has mashed together data about the known evolution and spread of avian flu with Google Earth to create an interactive “supermap” that should help researchers and policy makers better understand the virus and anticipate further outbreaks. “This is a completely new method of integrating and sharing knowledge about disease spread, giving people a quick and easy way to make sense of the changes,” said Colorado scientist Andrew Hill.

Like the legend of a roadmap, colors and symbols on the supermap indicate which types of hosts carry the virus and note the distribution of genotypes of interest. “This allows us to test hypotheses on the geographic distribution of strains that contain what laboratory studies have suggested are the key genotypes that allow avian strains of the influenza virus to infect mammals,” Hill said. Even more interesting, a click by users on viral “isolates” generates computer windows revealing diagnostic mutations that make each strain unique, and the information is linked by computer to the National Institutes of Health’s GenBank, a database containing more than 75 million sequence records. The supermap is so powerful, in fact, that it can even visualize the spread of bird flu in various parts of the world by specific orders of birds and mammals, including waterfowl, domestic fowl, and hoofed mammals.