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CU Boulder researchers tracking virus mutations before they can become variants

We spoke to researchers at CU Boulder who developed a platform that can quickly identify common mutations allowing it to escape antibodies and infect individuals.

BOULDER, Colo. — A group of researchers at Colorado University in Boulder are working both smarter and harder than COVID-19 and its variants. 

This comes as COVID continues to mutate and replicate – even infecting those who are vaccinated.

"Our idea was essentially to find the escape mutations kind of systematically and kind of be able to do it in a high frequent manner,” said Emily Rhodes, CU Boulder Chemical and Biological Engineering graduate student. 

Basically, predicting viral variants before they arise. Every COVID mutation has a new spike protein creating an escape mutation. An escape mutation essentially allows the virus to escape the body's means of fighting it.

That's the case with the delta variant as vaccinated individuals are getting infected.

"We were kind of like, this could potentially be an issue. Lets attack it and have a plan when something like this does happen and be able to identify them early on,” Rhodes said.

They're hoping to identify the escape mutation early on so people can get vaccinated to match the next mutation to prevent further spread.

“I did not expect to be working on this project immediately when I came in,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes is a rising, second-year graduate student at CU. Her job was to find out what ultimately leads to escape. This is done by using baker’s yeast as their virus since it can grow quickly.

"It's starting with yeast – putting the protein on the surface – doing binding and then doing some high throughput sequencing – de-mutational sequencing in order to get the sequences that aren't binding,” Rhodes said.

This process essentially identifies the mutations.

"Seventy-four percent of the mutations that we identified had not previously been identified," Rhodes said. "And so being able to look at and say these are mutations that could pop up and might put us at further risk for other kinds of variants."

The next steps are to make this information more broadly available for other scientists who are also working to identify mutations with hopes of outsmarting COVID.

Researchers found that this mapping tool can work for other deadly viruses like influenza and potentially HIV.