A research team led by Manolis Kellis, a Greek professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has published the most accurate and comprehensive genome “map” of the coronavirus. Their findings were published Tuesday in the scientific journal Nature Communications.
MIT scientists map the coronavirus
Through their research, Kellis and his team were able to confirm many genes that were suspected to be present in the coronavirus. They were also able to disprove the assumption that some structures were genes, since it turns out they do not produce any proteins.
The process of discovering a more accurate picture of the coronavirus involved a complicated process of comparing it to other viruses. The coronavirus was contrasted with several similar viruses, such as the SARS-CoV virus, which was responsible for the 2003 epidemic, and other viruses that are found in bats.
Greek scientist Kellis had already developed techniques through his background in computer science which could be used to perform comparisons between genomes. In the past, his work has been used to compare the human genome with that of other mammals, and now his technique has found a brilliant — and very timely — new application in the study of the coronavirus.
The coronavirus itself is made up of 30,000 RNA bases. The research into the novel coronavirus at MIT uncovered six new genes which create proteins and RNA, which can be added to the five genes which are shared by all coronaviruses. The team was also able to discount the possibility that more protein encoding genes are yet to be discovered, making them successful in mapping the coronavirus completely.
Additionally, the team of MIT scientists were able to examine almost 2,000 mutations of the coronavirus. This research is necessary in order for the scientific community to gain a better understanding of how important certain mutations are in changing how the coronavirus interacts with the immune system, and its overall virulence.
The study was able to conclusively identify an area of the virus where mutations occur faster than usual. Mutations are sped up in a certain protein which surrounds the genetic material of the coronavirus.
Greek scientist Manolis Kellis
The scientist leading the way in the mapping of the coronavirus genome at MIT is yet another of the many Greeks leading the fight against the coronavirus worldwide. Kellis is a professor of Computer Science at the university, with a focus on Computational Biology.
Speaking to Greek Reporter recently, Kellis explained his passion for studying biology using computers: “We like to think that humans invented the first digital computer. That is not true, humans are the descendants of the first digital computer — every single one of our cells has a digital code, it has labels and tags and inputs and outputs.
“At a cellular level, there is no more fundamental science than computational biology, because we are using computing to understand computing,” he explains.
As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For Kellis, humans are the most beautiful of machines, and “if examined carefully, (humans) can teach us so many things about system design, feedback and control, about coordination, about the world we live in. We inhabit this perfect machine, and the more we understand, the more we are in awe of it.”
He is also a member of the illustrious Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, which is a biomedical and genomic research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Kellis was born and grew up in the center of Athens before his family relocated to Aix en Provence in France when he was twelve years of age. After completing his high school education in the US, he — and both his siblings — received admission to MIT, where he earned his first degree as well as his PhD.