Hi-tech methods of studying and visually mapping the movement of avian (H5N1) influenza strains around the world could help scientists more quickly learn the behavior of the pandemic H1N1 flu virus, Ohio State University researchers say.

The Ohio State researchers linked a number of computer systems together to analyze enormous amounts of genetic data collected from all publicly available isolated strains of the H5N1 virus. Then the researchers went about developing a new Web-based application that allows health officials and the public to visualize how the virus moved across the globe using Google Earth. The global visualizations represent the most comprehensive map to date of how avian flu has been transmitted among sites in Asia, Africa, and Europe, according to the researchers.

A new way of analyzing genetic data that generates more complete information about the flu’s spread is the underpinning of this new technology. This method, combined with the increasing availability of sequenced genomes of isolated flu strains, is expected to help public health officials make more knowledgeable predictions about how the H1N1 flu pandemic will evolve.

“We are taking into account more data, but, at the same time, we’re making simpler visualizations, allowing users to choose what they want to see,” said senior author [removed]Daniel Janies[/removed], associate professor of biomedical informatics at Ohio State in an announcement about the study.

“We’ve created an environment where people can avail themselves of flu information specific to their region of the world or their area of interest. We waded through all of the complexities so people in the public health realm who want to determine how a flu virus got from point A to point B can find that out, and we’ll have better public health outcomes as a result.”

In an effort to make the map user-friendly, green lines represent transmission pathways most strongly supported by the research findings, while yellow lines indicate less certainty. Lines are also colored differently depending on whether they indicate an incoming or outgoing virus from a specific location. Additionally, users can search for specific transmission routes rather than seeing all transmission events on the map at once.

“With what we have so far, we can see the spread of H1N1 out of the United States and all over the world. There is a different dynamic, in that this is a virus carried by humans, who are cosmopolitan and moving both ways,” said Janies. “It’s also a virus that has been transmitted all over the world in a matter of months, and it’s still similar to its ancestors.”

The research appears online in the journal Cladistics.

To see the map users must install Google Earth.