Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a brash, naïve little piece entitled “Maize streak virus virus: an African pathogen come home?” for the South African Journal of Science, laying claim to a virus that we had just started working on – Maize streak virus (MSV) – on the basis that it had first been described from this country in 1901, that it was endemic here, and that it still caused major crop losses. I did this because research on this and related viruses seemed to have moved almost completely offshore, to Europe and the USA, and
“…the most interesting of the viruses that grow all around us have already been whisked away to foreign laboratories; [that] there they have been cloned, sequenced, and had their most intimate details exposed, far from their native shores”. [Yes, I really did write like that back then].
I asked at that time, if we should
“…perhaps be content to supply foreigners with the (pathogenic) fruits of our fields, and to marvel when the answers come filtering back from abroad?”.
I answered myself by saying that
“…prospects for worthwhile research on African geminiviruses, and on any other indigenous pathogens, are at least as good here as anywhere else. Our facilities are the equal of those abroad, the necessary expertise is certainly not lacking, and the viruses are on our doorstep.”
I’m a little shocked now that I could have said that then: the paper quotes only three pieces of work from our lab, one of them a Masters dissertation and two papers done by my erstwhile supervisors; we had not yet sequenced any virus, let alone a geminivirus, and all we had was brashness and hope. Indeed, I went on to say the following:
“We are, incidentally, the only research group with access to molecular biological techniques which is actually working on the virus in its natural environment: this is very useful, as with the virus in all its forms and its vector(s) literally on our doorstep, we can rapidly accumulate, identify and characterize distinct isolates for study here or elsewhere. We hope there will be a little more of the ‘here’, and a little less of the ‘elsewhere’, from now on”.
I outlined what it was that we ambitiously wanted to do – seeing as we had no money, and only one PhD student at the time – as follows:
“…we now have distinctly different genomic maps of three isolates [!] which differ in serology and symptom expression; we have cloned genomic DNA of several more isolates, and can potentially clone and [restriction] map many more. With this type of work now solidly established, we intend to investigate other biological variants of MSV – and other native cereal geminiviruses – in maize, cereal grains and other members of the Gramineae. The aim is to explore the genetic diversity of naturally occurring types of MSV and related viruses, and to identify any isolates that appear unusual in terms of symptom expression, serology or transmission. These would be interesting to map, and potentially useful in recombinational analyses for the fine mapping of determinants of pathogenicity and host range.” [see later]
The article obviously sank without trace: I can find only three citations to it; two of them mine, and the third from a South African maize breeder. How the overseas labs that I compared us to must have sniggered…actually, I doubt that happened at all; I am sure none of them ever read it! In retrospect, we really were regarded as a backwater, and as wannabe geminivirologists; I had at least one collaboration request rebuffed with “we don’t feel our work would be advanced by working with you”, and was told “we’re already working on that, so you shouldn’t bother” for a couple of other proposals.
My hubris was not entirely misplaced, however: we did in fact go on to develop into a world-leading MSV and geminivirus molecular virology laboratory; it just took another fifteen years or so!
So where are we, twenty-five years on from my cheeky article? Much water has flowed under several bridges; I expanded from molecular virology in the 1990s into plant and vaccine biotechnology in the 2000s, while keeping a geminivirus research group going – and we have published and co-published something like 55 peer-reviewed journal articles and several encyclopaedia and book chapters on MSV and other “African streak viruses” alone, let alone another 14 or so articles on other geminiviruses, with some 1200 citations. We have papers on geminivirus mapping and sequencing, virus diversity, biogeographical variation, quantitation of symptoms, molecular determinants of pathogenicity, recombination, engineering maize for resistance, the use of two of the viruses as gene expression vectors – and cover pictures for Plant Biotechnology Journal and Journal of Virology.
I started with one Honours student in 1986, who went on to do a Masters in 1988; we moved on to having one PhD student in the late 1980s to up four PhD students simultaneously in the mid- to late 1990s, and a postdoc at the same time. The projects went from simple diversity studies of a few viruses using restriction mapping, through the application of PCR, to partial genome sequencing and studying the molecular biology of infectious clones of the viruses, with a very profitable sideline in phylogenetic analyses; we also moved – with Professor Jennifer Thomson – into a parallel track of plant biotechnology, aimed at engineering resistance to MSV in maize. We added another track early this century, working on similar ssDNA circoviruses of parrots, using all of the expertise we had accumulated on geminiviruses. We truly work on “circomics” now – the study of small circular genomes – with its subsets “geminiviromics” and “circoviromics”, with a library of literally hundreds of sequenced MSVs and distinct grass mastreviruses and BFDVs.
The geminiviromics group has pretty much got away from me now; the folk I trained as PhD students in the late 1990s and early 2000s were enthused enough with the field that they have gradually usurped my leadership and supervisory role, and made the field their own. I still maintain an interest in using Bean yellow dwarf mastrevirus (BeYDV) as an expression vector for “biofarming” purposes; I am also maintaining a project on Beak and feather disease circovirus (BFDV) diversity and plant-made vaccines. I think we pretty much did what we set out to do – including the brave prediction I made about host range and pathogenicity, which led to some very interesting work on recombination and genome modularity, and the successful engineering of pathogen-derived resistance to MSV.
So I owe some thanks, in retrospect: first, to Barbara von Wechmar, who sparked the interest – and provided isolates, leafhoppers, and expertise. Second, to Bev Clarke and Fiona Tanzer (aka Hughes), who were brave enough to blaze the trail, and clone our first MSVs – and make one infectious, in the case of Fiona. Thanks to Wendelin “Popeye” Schnippenkoetter, for your single-minded perseverance in mixing and matching genomes; thanks Kenneth Palmer, for showing the way for transient expression assays in maize cells and engineering MSV as a vector. Thanks Janet Willment, for mapping replication origins in MSV and expanding us into wheat viruses; thanks Jennifer Thomson for the collaboration, and Fiona and Tichaona Mangwende and Dionne Shepherd for breaking us into maize resistance engineering. Thanks Christine Rey for the collaboration, and Leigh Berrie for your quiet competence in our detour into South African cassava mosaic virus. Thanks Darrin (aka Darren) Martin and Eric van der Walt, for so brilliantly exploring MSV diversity, evolution and recombination – and Darrin for endless amusement in the lab, as well as for two completely distinct and invaluable software packages, for symptom quantitation and recombination analysis. In the present generation, thanks to Suhail Rafudeen and our student Rizwan Syed (and Dionne and Darrin as supernumerary supervisors); thanks Aderito Monjane for doing such a ridiculous amount of work for a superlative PhD; thanks Dionne and Marian, for keeping the maize engineering afloat – and thanks also to Arvind Varsani, for retraining himself from a papillomavaccinologist to a circomicist, and for popping up everywhere.