LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — The Zika virus possesses the ability to mutate rapidly, meaning the current outbreak of the virus has the potential to spread swiftly around the world, according to a UCLA study released Friday.

“The Zika virus has undergone significant genetic changes in the past 70 years,” said the study’s senior author, Genhong Cheng, a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

READ MORE: See Who Won During The Golden Globe Awards

“By tracing its genetic mutations, we aimed to understand how the virus is transmitted from person to person and how it causes different types of disease,” he said.

The Zika virus, which was first isolated in 1947, caused sporadic disease in Africa and Asia until the 2007 Micronesia and 2013 French Polynesia outbreaks. Scientists previously believed the infection was spread solely by mosquitoes and caused only by mild disease.

READ MORE: 2 Riverside Co. Sheriff's Deputies Recovering After Being Hit By Delivery Van; 2 Women Killed

The latest epidemic, however, has been linked to fetal brain-development disorders and Guillain-Barre syndrome. New modes of transmission, including infection through sex, have also surfaced.

“We don’t know why Zika infection was not associated with serious human disease, especially in newborns, until recently,” said co-author Dr. Stephanie Valderramos, a fellow in obstetrics-gynecology at the Geffen School. “We hoped that taking a closer look at the virus’ genetic changes over time would reveal clues to this mystery.”

The Cell Press journal, Cell Host & Microbe, published the findings Friday in its advance online edition.

MORE NEWS: Video: Multiple Trees Fall On Homes, Leading To Injuries During Severe Winds

(©2016 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)