Seth Schobel

Scientific Director for the SC2i, and Assistant Professor, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
PhD 2015 Biological Sciences

Dissertation — The Viral Genomics Revolution: Big Data Approaches To Basic Viral Research, Surveillance, and Vaccine Development

Since the decoding of the first RNA virus in 1976, the field of viral genomics has exploded, first through the use of Sanger sequencing technologies and later with the use next-generation sequencing approaches. With the development of these sequencing technologies, viral genomics has entered an era of big data. New challenges for analyzing these data are now apparent. Here, we describe novel methods to extend the current capabilities of viral comparative genomics. Through the use of antigenic distancing techniques, we have examined the relationship between the antigenic phenotype and the genetic content of influenza virus to establish a more systematic approach to viral surveillance and vaccine selection. Distancing of Antigenicity by Sequence-based Hierarchical Clustering (DASH) was developed and used to perform a retrospective analysis of 22 influenza seasons. Our methods produced vaccine candidates identical to or with a high concordance of antigenic similarity with those selected by the WHO. In a second effort, we have developed VirComp and OrionPlot: two independent yet related tools. These tools first generate gene-based genome constellations, or genotypes, of viral genomes, and second create visualizations of the resultant genome constellations. VirComp utilizes sequence-clustering techniques to infer genome constellations and prepares genome constellation data matrices for visualization with OrionPlot. OrionPlot is a Java application for tailoring genome constellation figures for publication. OrionPlot allows for color selection of gene cluster assignments, customized box sizes to enable the visualization of gene comparisons based on sequence length, and label coloring. We have provided five analyses designed as vignettes to illustrate the utility of our tools for performing viral comparative genomic analyses. Study three focused on the analysis of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) genomes circulating during the 2012 – 2013 RSV season. We discovered a correlation between a recent tandem duplication within the G gene of RSV-A and a decrease in severity of infection. Our data suggests that this duplication is associated with a higher infection rate in female infants than is generally observed. Through these studies, we have extended the state of the art of genotype analysis, phenotype/genotype studies and established correlations between clinical metadata and RSV sequence data.