Nucleic Acid Observatory

Towards reliable early warning for catastrophic pandemics

The world is demonstrably vulnerable to biological threats. COVID-19 was a disaster, but future pandemics could be far worse. To protect society from future catastrophe, we need reliable early warning for any future pandemic pathogen – including those we have never seen before.

The Nucleic Acid Observatory project, a joint effort of SecureBio and MIT’s Sculpting Evolution group, aims to solve this problem by designing new disease surveillance methods capable of detecting any pandemic threat. We are particularly focused on pathogens that – whether through natural evolution or deliberate engineering – may evade existing or near-future surveillance systems focused on known pathogens of concern.

To achieve this, we're using models and experiments to evaluate the potential of different approaches to large-scale disease monitoring, developing novel computational approaches to detect potential threats as early and reliably as possible, and validating these approaches by building a pilot early warning system.

Together, we can build a pandemic early warning system for the 21st century. If you share that vision, consider reading more about our research or applying to our open positions.

Our research

  • Evaluating biosurveillance approaches

    Understanding & comparing large-scale monitoring approaches

    Biosurveillance encompasses a wide array of approaches for detecting new disease outbreaks. For the NAO, the challenge is to identify which are the most sensitive, reliable, and cost-effective for pathogen-agnostic early warning. Through epidemiological modeling, data analysis, and experimentation, we are characterizing and comparing the merits of different approaches, with a special focus on municipal and airplane wastewater.

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  • Computational threat detection

    Designing new methods to detect pathogens in sequencing data

    To detect an emerging pathogen in sequencing data, one must reliably distinguish pathogen sequences from a complex and ever-changing microbial background. NAO researchers are developing, refining, and evaluating new computational tools for identifying threatening sequences in complex sequencing data, with a special focus on techniques that identify threats based on their growth pattern over time.

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  • Piloting early warning

    Putting our research into practice

    We are building a pilot early warning system, with the goal of getting a system running that is capable of detecting some categories of novel threats. While initially this system will be far from comprehensive, over time we'll iterate on expanding the range of threats it can detect, integrating what we've learned about biosurveillance approaches and computational methods, and gaining real-world experience in the operational aspects of an early warning system.

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