Scientists Study Tissue From Old Flu Corpses

The strain of the current virus is a mutated version of a bird flu that caused outbreaks among chickens in Hong Kong in 1997 and 2003, infecting and killing seven people. This year's version has killed 15 people and caused the destruction of 50 million chickens across 10 countries.

Health officials report that so far the flu hasn't spread between people, but, as Wilson says, viruses are designed to adjust.

Most life is coded on paired strands of DNA so if one mutation happens, it's often negated by its normal twin. But viruses store their genetic information on single strands of RNA so a single mutation can quickly lead to change.

"A lethal combination can happen if a person with a human virus gets the bird flu," said Wilson. "Then you get what's called a reassortment."

Taubenberger is scrutinizing the 1918 virus and comparing it to current forms in humans and birds to look for a possible avian source. Because it doesn't resemble any virus now found in chickens, ducks or geese, he suspects it may have been the product of a chance encounter between a human and a rare, unknown bird.

"There may be a species of bird out there that is chronically infected with flu but we don't know about it," he said.

In order to track down that rare bird — or whatever may have been the source of the deadly 1918 virus — Taubenberger argues groups like the World Health Organization should keep tabs on both human and animal virus strains. Knowing what structures made the 1918 virus lethal, can help health officials zero in on new, potentially deadly versions.

Although developed countries now have the benefit of antibiotics and vaccines to help blunt a possible epidemic like the 1918 flu, Taubenberger points out that in modern society, it could be even harder to catch up with a virus to stop it.

"In 1918, the flu spread at the speed of ships and trains," he said. "Now we have jumbo jets crossing the oceans on a routine basis. In many ways a virus might be more dangerous now than back then."

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