IT ISN'T just flu that we have birds to thank for over the millennia. It seems they also gave us one kind of common cold - and it made the jump relatively recently.

In 2001 Ron Fouchier and colleagues at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, discovered human metapneumovirus, one of many viruses that cause common colds. Although the resulting illness is usually mild, and most children have had it at least once by the age of 5, hMPV can cause lethal lung infections in small children.

By analysing similar viruses in birds, Fouchier's team has worked out that hMPV started as a bird virus and mutated to a form capable of infecting humans 200 years ago (Journal of General Virology, DOI: 10.1099/vir.0.2008/006957-0).

Because hMPV made the jump so recently, and is highly successful at infecting humans, Fouchier says it offers an opportunity to study how animal viruses adapt to people. His team is helping to build a catalogue of viruses in animals that often infect humans, with the aim of predicting which ones are most likely to become a danger to humans next.


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