Ebola virus. Micrograph from CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith
Ebola virus. Micrograph from CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith

Ebola: New or Old?

As viruses go, Ebola has a grim star power. When a new outbreak hits, Ebola kills a high fraction of its victims, causing horrific bleeding along the way. The latest outbreak started in March in Guinea. As of today, the World Health Organization reported 231 cases and 155 deaths.

In order to better treat Ebola, Pardis Sabeti of Harvard and her colleagues have been analyzing the virus’s evolution. It turns out that Ebola is not some freakish new plague, but rather old. If that seems puzzling, a research scientist in Sabeti’s lab, Stephen Gire, has created this animation, which I’ve embedded below, to explain it.

Gire’s video is part of a contest being run by the National Institutes of Health. Check them all out and vote for your favorites. It’s great to see scientists being encouraged to explain what they do in a new medium like this. Wonderful things can evolve from this kind of experiment. A few years ago, for example, Brown University biologist Casey Dunn and his students started toying around with stop-action animation to tell stories of marine biology, and now their “Creature Cast” series is regularly featured on the New York Times web site.

Who knows–perhaps the next Carl Sagan will be a cartoonist?