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Internet viruses aid flea researchers

The way viruses spread on the Internet is helping ecologists decipher how pests move in the real world.

The way viruses spread on the Internet is helping ecologists decipher how pests move in the real world.

Jim Muirhead and Hugh MacIsaac, ecologists at the University of Windsor in Ontario, have been using network theory to work out how the Russian spiny water flea will travel through Canada's lakes.

According to the two ecologists' theory, the lakes are akin to interconnected nodes in a network, with some open to infection by computer viruses--or, in this case, the spiny water flea. The spread of the water flea by boats and other craft mimics the spread of viruses by e-mail, the theory states, and can help the scientists identify which lakes are likely to become infection hubs from which the flea will spread.

The pair believe two main characteristics of fast-spreading viruses will indicate the likely points of the infection from the tiny waterborne crustacean: Outbound traffic is mostly to uninfected areas and the amount of outgoing traffic is very high.

The two characteristics were found in one particular Canadian lake, Lake Muskoka, which served to infect 39 others.

The research was published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology.

It's not the first time scientists have turned to the world of Internet menaces to help research.

Australian researchers are currently working with Microsoft's research arm on using antispam techniques, including data-mining and machine-learning, to help identify the genetic patterns that underpin the AIDS virus.

Jo Best of Silicon.com reported from London.