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When the Zika virus reared its ugly head, researchers began scrambling to identify the pathogen. Initially, the virus was hard to find in affected victims. Zika simply did not leave enough evidence behind to enable identification. However, scientists from the Broad Institute and MIT came to the rescue by combining efforts to create and introduce CATCH, which is a synonym for Compact Aggregation of Targets for Comprehensive Hybridization.

Traditionally, researchers look for metagenomic sequences in laboratory samples. The process involves removing genetic material from a sample and sifting through the sequences to find an unusual strand. But, the Zika virus was not leaving enough genetic material for scientists to evaluate. In steps CATCH, which has the ability to capture the necessary material using created probes despite the fact that the molecules may be in short supply.

Baited probes are used not unlike fishing hooks to capture the genetic material. The bait consists of small strands of RNA or DNA molecules that readily pair with the genetic material in viruses. Once CATCH attracts viral molecules, the other material is simply rinsed away. Baiting was the method used to identify the Ebola and Lassa viruses.

After the scientists learned the effectiveness of the new tool, they set out to target dozens of viruses. CATCH has also been shown to be quite versatile by allowing scientists to use different types of probes. In this way, CATCH was able to help them locate and identify 356 viruses known to affect people. Once identified, viral genomes are entered into the GenBank database at the National Center for Biotechnology.

By using CATCH, researchers successfully created a subset of probes to specifically capture the Zika and the Chikungunya viruses. Chikungunya is the name given to another mosquito-borne virus that began showing up in the same regions as Zika. The CATCH tool also allowed scientists to learn the Zika virus had existed in a number of regions before detection was possible.

The knowledge gained gives researchers the chance to locate potentially harmful pathogens before they reach epidemic levels. Patients suffering from fevers having an unknown cause may have a viral illness that CATCH will easily help them identify. CATCH is not only useful in identifying viral species, but the tool also proves effective for locating and identifying bacterial and fungal species.