During the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a public health concern that the longer the pandemic continues, we will see more mutations from the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). Mutations to a virus can allow it easier to spread, infect, and be less responsive to vaccines.
There is a branch of biological science that has helped make great strides in better understanding viruses and how to combat them on the molecular level, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study of genes, known as genomics, is making it possible to anticipate, diagnose, and treat diseases with greater precision and personalization than ever before. The human genome is made up of three billion base pairs of DNA that are individually organized to give us our basic anatomy and individual features like height and hair color.
But genomics has applications far beyond just learning more about our own genomes, but the genomes of other organisms and viruses.
Research in genomics has been essential to understanding and combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Genomics is a field focusing on studying genomes–the DNA and RNA–of organisms. Researchers first sequenced the genome of a virus in 1977.
Not only does identifying the entirety of a viral genome sequence helps researchers to determine if that virus is present in a host, but it can also provide clues as to how a virus attacks and invades cells. The field of genomics has helped to create treatments for these viruses.
By studying viral genomes, scientists are able to understand viral mutations and how they evolve over time. It can also help to track outbreaks and how to best treat infections or develop a vaccine against a virus.
Kary B. Mullis pioneered the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology in the 1980s, which enables scientists to make millions of copies of a DNA sample. Many elements of current research have been transformed by the technology, including the diagnosis of genetic abnormalities and the detection of the AIDS virus in human cells. Criminologists utilize the technology to match specific people to blood or hair samples via DNA comparison. Because vast amounts of DNA may recovered from fossils having only tiny amounts, PCR has had an impact on evolutionary studies because it can amplify the samples extracted.
Quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) is a modified type of PCR used in COVID-19 testing. In this case, the PCR test is used to measure the amount of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material. Using a nasal swab or a saliva tube, healthcare workers gather samples to begin the testing process and send those samples to a lab for testing.
The COVID-19 tests administered at home, the pharmacy, or the doctor’s office do not identify a particular variant strain of COVID-19, regardless of whether it is a molecular or antigen test.
In order to determine which mutation is present, the sample must be examined at a lab with genetic testing. Currently, genomic sequencing is being used to monitor the changes of COVID-19 through sampling from labs.
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