Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is the causative agent for the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Since its first detection in December 2019 the disease has engulfed almost entire world by spreading over more than 200 countries that resulted in above 160,000 deaths as of 19th April 2020. This highly infectious virus spread via respiratory droplets and aerosols when an uninfected person comes in contact with an infected one. Without any drug or vaccine at sight, the world is slowly succumbing to the disease. Therefore, researchers around the world have started collaborating and sharing their research data so that with concerted efforts a cure for the disease can be developed quickly. In this challenging scenario, Bioinformatics came out as one of the essential tools to analyze viral data as it provides vital information about the genetic makeup of the virus and also assists directly in the development of drugs or vaccines against the deadly disease.
Bioinformatics can significantly reduce the cost of research by predicting a few plausible directions amongst hundreds of options. A large amount of data can be analyzed by Bioinformatics to come up with a hypothesis that can be further validated in the laboratory by doing experiments. Instead of doing a bunch of experiments without a clear goal, a few can be tested as predicted by Bioinformatics by analyzing the available data. That way a researcher can save a lot of money and manpower, and also results can be obtained quickly. In the current COVID-19 crisis also Bioinformatics is playing a crucial role by predicting suitable drugs against viral targets and subsequently these are now being tested in the laboratory for validation.
To develop a potent drug against COVID-19 Bioinformatics can help by predicting possible molecules as inhibitors for the virus that can be tested in the laboratory for efficacy. Using certain computational tools or self-written programs a Bioinformatician can predict possible molecules that can be used as drugs against the disease. From analyzing the sequence to the final drug candidate prediction requires several steps to follow which can be broadly divided into five segments – retrieval of the viral sequence from the nucleic acid database, analysis of the sequence data by comparison with other viral sequences, phylogenetic analysis of the viral sequences to find out how the target virus evolved from others, computational modeling of the important viral proteins as drug targets, and finally test several drug molecules against the viral proteins for inhibitory activities.
Immediately after the discovery of the SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan city of China in December 2019, scientists experimentally determined the sequence of the virus and deposited that in the public database so that others can access it freely and work on it. Bioinformaticians downloaded the sequence from the database and started analyzing the sequence to extract useful information about the virus as this is the first step in the drug development against COVID-19.
The SARS-CoV-2 sequence was compared with other viruses, especially other coronaviruses, and found that it has sequence similarity with SARS-CoV which was responsible for the previous SARS outbreak in 2003. Also, the SARS-CoV-2 sequence was found very similar to a coronavirus found in bats and from that information it was predicted that the virus was probably originated in bats. Subsequently acquiring favorable mutations or changes in its genome the virus jumped to humans from bats thorough a pangolin intermediate – all this information was obtained by analyzing viral sequences which again indicates the significance of Bioinformatics.
From sequence and phylogenetic analysis scientists also found out that at least three different strains (types A, B, and C) of the virus are currently circulating in different regions of the world. Type A was the ancestral strain that moved from China to Europe and the other strain B originated from A and then moved to America. Type C again originated from A by changing its genome and currently prevalent in Asia. All these fascinating information was obtained due to the help of Bioinformatic analysis.
Building Structural Models:
Once the genetic information of SARS-CoV-2 was analyzed to find out genes that it holds and what type of proteins it encodes, scientists generated theoretical models of all the important proteins of the virus. If one can inhibit those essential proteins of the virus, the virus can be stopped from further infecting others. In the absence of any experimental structures of the viral proteins, theoretical models can be built by a process called homology modeling where if structures of similar proteins from other viruses are available those can be used as templates to generate theoretical structures of target proteins. Structures of the proteins are important for designing drugs against those, and therefore, scientists built theoretical models of important viral proteins that can be targeted by inhibitor molecules.
The final step in the process is to use existing drug molecules or modify the structures of existing drug molecules and ‘dock’ them against the viral proteins to see whether these molecules are binding to the important sites on the viral proteins or not by computational analysis. If some molecules are found which can bind to the viral proteins with high affinity, then those molecules can be further tested in the laboratory to find out their effectiveness. This way Bioinformatics can help immensely to design new drugs against the SARS-CoV-2 and stop COVID-19 from further spreading. Already the scientists have designed several inhibitory molecules against SARS-CoV-2 and now these molecules are being tested experimentally to find out which one is the most potent in COVID-19.
Bioinformatics Scope in India:
The current crisis has shown the importance and reach of Bioinformatics applications, and why it is an essential component for a biologist to know. Unfortunately, in India the Bioinformatics jobs are limited and it is considered as a part of the Biotechnology course. As Biotechnology jobs are available in much higher numbers compared to Bioinformatics jobs in India it is recommended to students that they should pursue Biotechnology careers. Therefore, students who would like to pursue Bioinformatics careers they should either pursue Biotechnology undergraduate programs like Biotechnology BSc or Biotechnology BTech, or pursue postgraduate program like Biotechnology MSc, but make sure that Bioinformatics course is an integral component of any of these programs. At the Adamas University, the School of Life Science & Biotechnology offers BSc, BTech and MSc programs in Biotechnology. All these programs have Bioinformatics as one of the major components for study. We hope the cure for COVID-19 is found soon so that we can get back to our normal lives again, but it is no doubt that Bioinformatics applications would play an important role in finding the vaccine.
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