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How Viruses Jump from Hosts: Secrets of Cross-Species Rabies Transmission

HIV-AIDS. SARS. Ebola. Bird Flu. Swine Flu. Rabies. These are emerging infectious diseases where the viruses have jumped from one animal species into another and now infect humans. This is a phenomenon known as cross-species transmission (CST) and scientists are working to determine what drives it.

Gary McCracken, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and department head in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is one of those scientists and has made a groundbreaking discovery into how viruses jump from host to host.

His article will appear in the Aug. 6 edition of Science and will be featured on the issue's cover.

It has been a long-held belief that rapid mutation is the main factor that allows viruses to overcome host-specific barriers in cellular, molecular or immunological defenses. Therefore, it has been argued that viruses emerge primarily between species with high contact rates.

McCracken and his colleagues now report that CST may have less to do with virus mutation and contact rates and more to do with host similarity.

"That innate similarity in the defenses of closely related species may favor virus exchange by making it easier for natural selection to favor a virus' ability to infect new hosts," McCracken explained.
 
 

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