attaaaggtt tataccttcc caggtaacaa accaaccaac tttcgatctc ttgtagatct …
That string of apparent gibberish is anything but: It’s a snippet of a DNA sequence from the viral pathogen, dubbed 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), that is overwhelming China and frightening the entire world. Scientists are publicly sharing an ever-growing number of full sequences of the virus from patients—53 at last count in the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data database. These viral genomes are being intensely studied to try to understand the origin of 2019-nCoV and how it fits on the family tree of related viruses found in bats and other species. They have also given glimpses into what this newly discovered virus physically looks like, how it’s changing, and how it might be stopped.
“One of the biggest takeaway messages [from the viral sequences] is that there was a single introduction into humans and then human-to-human spread,” says Trevor Bedford, a bioinformatics specialist at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The role of Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, in spreading 2019-nCoV remains murky, though such sequencing, combined with sampling the market’s environment for the presence of the virus, is clarifying that it indeed had an important early role in amplifying the outbreak. The viral sequences, most researchers say, also knock down the idea the pathogen came from a virology institute in Wuhan.