Project Summary

In 1918 the H1N1 influenza killed 50 to 100 million people. In 2009 a mutated form returned to claim over 14,000 lives. Even in non-pandemic (intermediate) years, influenza may kill half a million people. Most of these deaths are among the very old, the very young, and the immune-suppressed. 

This project compares mutations in the RNA of influenza strains to determine whether the mutations follow a cyclical pattern that could be used to predict future outbreaks.

I first hypothesized that an underlying pattern might exist in the RNA that could lead to a master vaccine for different strains of a single variety of influenza. I used a computerized Basic Local Alignment Search Tool test, or BLAST test, to compare the RNA protein sequences of different strains. I chose strains for which data is available online on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website. I compared strains of H5N1, H1N1, H2N2, and H3N2 varieties of influenza from all available years.

My initial hypothesis was not correct. There was not enough similarity in the RNA sequences to allow a single vaccine for multiple strains of the same flu variety. I formed a new hypothesis, that there might be a cyclical pattern in the mutations, which might make it possible to predict the timing of future pandemics. 

My independent variable was the number of years between a pandemic strain and a given mutation. My dependent variable was the percentage of similarity of their RNA protein sequences.

I found that the H1N1, H2N2, and H3N2 varieties mutate similarly. They reach a point of maximum dissimilarity to the pandemic strains, and then begin to rebound, becoming more similar to the pandemic strains over time. While this is not a cyclic pattern, it may be a wave or parabolic pattern.

In all, I conducted more than 300 BLAST tests, 292 of which are documented in the data presented for this project.

[Erratum: A graphic in the video mistakenly identifies H2N2 as avian flu. H2N2 is actually the Asian flu, while H5N1 is the avian flu.]

BLASTing the Flu