Posts Tagged ‘geminivirus’

White death: A diabolical pact between an insect and two viruses

22 August, 2012

See on Scoop.itVirology News

This is actually an article in The Economist from 2007 – forwarded to me by a Professor of Philosophy, as it happens, and which has mouldered on my desk lo, these past five years.  Thanks David Benatar!

“Whiteflies are pests in every continent that they are found in—and they are found in every continent except Antarctica. They cause damage directly, by consuming plant juices, and indirectly, by spreading viral diseases. But Liu Shusheng, of Zhejiang University, in Hangzhou, and his colleagues have found a strain of the species that delivers a double whammy. Not only does it spread diseases, but it is also vastly more successful when it lives on plants infected with the diseases in question [tomato yellow leafcurl and tobacco curly shoot begomoviruses, both ssDNA geminiviruses]  than when it subsists on healthy plants.”

This is a fascinating example of just why it is that certain vector-virus-host combinations can lead to success of the vector, and increased spread of the virus.  Basically,

“…type B insects lived six times longer on infected plants than uninfected ones, and their population per infected plant might rise as high as 13 times that on an uninfected one”

This means that geminivirus infection of host plants actually gives a survival advantage to the insects which transmit them.  Simple if unfortunate!!

See on www.economist.com

Setting your virus free

7 August, 2012

I was reminded, as I walked in my garden in the Cape Town late afternoon sun a short while ago, of a Master’s degree project I had started with a very bright young person.  A young person who didn’t finish, because she abandoned her degree in the interests of finding herself – and subsequently got into computer-based education some 16 years ago, but that’s another story.

I have written about her previously, as it happens: she is the “Dr” Jacobson in this story, written about a year after her Honours essay on Emerging Viruses became the most authoritative source in the world on Ebola virus that was available electronically – and the Kikwit Ebola outbreak that occurred soon afterwards caused the world to go frantically looking for information.

Sadly for her, she could not work on Ebola for her Master’s, so I gave her what I thought was the next best thing: a project on making a replicating DNA vector system out of Abutilon mosaic virus (AbMV), a two-component ssDNA begomovirus.  The project started in the easiest way imaginable: she went to the local plant nursery, and bought a variegated Abutilon striatum in a pot, and planted it in our Departmental plant room.

Abutilon leaves and flower

AbMV in what is now an ornamental abutilon produces very striking symptoms, which accounts for the popularity of the plant, and its spread across much of the world – by cuttings, mainly.  This is fortunate, as in most cases the virus has lost its natural mode of transmission, which is only via whiteflies (Bemisia tabaci).  Thus, by fortuitous accident, a virus that is  effectively crippled is now spread far beyond its point of origin in South America, purely by human intervention.

Be this as it may, our mission was to harness the fact that AbMV maintains itself as an episome for the lifetime of a plant by making it into an expression vector for plant-made vaccines.  Kenneth Palmer in my lab had already done similar work with Maize streak virus; however, maize was not really a usable host because it is an annual and was hard to infect and the vector did not spread.  It was also not usable in dicot hosts, so we settled on AbMV as being available in our and many other back yards.

We did not get far: while Alison was really bright, by this time she had discovered that science really wasn’t for her, and made essentially no progress beyond cloning a B genome and getting some sequence out of it.  She left to find more fulfilling things to do, and her experimental material continued to grow in the plant room – and gather red spider mites.  I still have the badge off her labcoat, incidentally: I couldn’t let it go; it was and is the only Led Zeppelin logo I have ever seen on the standard white coat.

This is where we get to the title of this post. In 1996 or so, I took the by-now largish plant in its pot back home, and set it free: I planted it in my garden.  It eventually developed into a large bush, easily 3 x 2 metres wide and tall – and has just been cut back, after some 16 years, to allow it to redevelop.  I get a little kick out of seeing civilians step nervously away from it, after I have walked them up to it, and say: “And this is the biggest virus you will ever meet”.  Let’s see you do THAT, Ebola virologists!

Oh, it isn’t entirely free: we sampled it again a couple of years ago when the fearsomely efficient geminivirus-hunting crew that grew out of my lab wanted samples to test their then-new phi29 rolling circle amplification chops on.  We could still only get a B genome out of it, and one that was 10% different from any other published AbMV – so maybe there’s still a story there.

But all it has to do now is keep on growing.  And look beautiful.

A feeling for the Molechism* – revisited

10 July, 2012

This is an update of a post I did on Alan Cann’s MicrobiologyBytes back in 2007, before i started ViroBlogy: I am doing this because (a) it’s mine, (b) I want to update it – and the MB version is archived, so I can’t.  So here we are again:

I think it’s permissible, after working on your favourite virus for over 20 years, to develop some sort of feeling for it: you know, the kind of insight that isn’t directly backed up by experiment, but that may very well be right. Or not – but in either case, it would take a deal of time and a fair bit of cash to prove or disprove, and would have sparked some useful discussion in the meantime. And then, of course, the insights you have into (insert favourite virus name here) – if correct – can usually be extended into the more general case, and if you are sufficiently distinguished, people may actually take them on board, and you will have contributed to Accepted Wisdom.

I can’t pretend – at least, outside of my office – to any such Barbara McClintock-like distinction; however, I have done a fair bit of musing on my little sphere of interest as it relates (or not) to the State of the Viral Universe, and I will share some of these rambles now with whomever is interested.

I have been in the same office now, and teaching the same course, more or less, for 32-odd years. In that time I have worked on the serology and epidemiology of the bromoviruses, cucumovirus detection, potyvirus phylogeny, geminivirus diversity and molecular biology, HIV and papillomavirus genetic diversity, and expressing various bits of viruses and other proteins in plants and in insect cells. However, much of my interest (if not my effort) in that time has been directed towards understanding how grass-infecting mastreviruses in particular interact with their environment and with each other, in the course of their natural transmission cycle.

Maize streak virus

Maxwell’s Demon (left, lower) and Martian Face (right, upper) visible on a MSV virion

Fascinating little things, mastreviruses: unique geminate capsid architecture, and at around a maximum of 2.8 kb of single-strand circular DNA, we thought they were the smallest DNA genomes known until the circoviruses and then the zoo of anello- and anello-like viruses were discovered. Their genomes code for only 4 proteins – two replication-associated, one movement and one capsid – yet we have managed to work on just one subgroup of mastrevirus species for 27 years, without exhausting its interest – at least, to us… (see PubMed list here). We also showed that one could see Martian faces quite distinctly on virions – and possibly even Maxwell’s Demon. But I digress….

Maize streak

Severe symptoms of MSV on sweetcorn

We have concentrated on the “African streak viruses” – related species Maize streak virus, Panicum streak virus, Digitaria streak virus, Sugarcane streak virus and friends – for two very simple reasons:
1. They occur in Africa, near us, and nowhere else;
2. Maize streak virus is the worst viral pathogen affecting maize in Africa.

So we get situational or niche advantage, and we get to work on an economically-important pathogen. One that was described – albeit as “…not of…contagious nature” – as early as 1901, no less.

Maize streak virus

Maize streak virus or MSV, like its relatives, is obligately transmitted by a leafhopper (generally Cicadulina mbila Naudé): this means we have a three-party interaction – of virus-host-vector – to consider when trying to understand the dynamics of its transmission. Actually, it’s more complicated than that: we have also increasingly to consider the human angle, given that the virus disease affects mainly the subsistence farming community in Africa, and that human activity has a large influence on the spread of the disease. So while considering just the virus – as complicated as that is – we have to remember that it is only part of the whole picture.

So how complicated is the virus? At first sight, not very: all isolates made from severe maize infections share around 97% of their genome sequence. However, however…that 3% of sequence variation hides a multitude of biological differences, and there is a range of relatives infecting grasses of all kinds, some of which differ by up to 35% in genome sequence. Moreover, maize is a crop plant first introduced to Africa a maximum of 500 years ago, so it is hardly a “natural” host – yet, all over Africa, it is infected by only a very narrow range of virus genotypes, from a background of very wide sequence diversity available.

So here’s an insight:

the host selects the virus that replicates best in it.

And lo, we found that in the Vaalharts irrigation area in the north of South Africa that the dominant virus genotype in winter wheat was a different strain – >10% sequence difference – to the one in the same field, in summer maize. Different grass species also have quite different strains or even species of streak viruses best adapted to them.

DendrogramNot all that profound a set of observations, perhaps, but they lead on to another insight:

streak viruses travel around as a cloud of variants or virus complex.

Not intuitively obvious, perhaps…but testable, and when we did, we found we were right: cloning virus genomes back out of maize or from a grass infected via leafhoppers gave a single predominant genotype in each case, with a number of other variants present as well. Looking further, we discovered that even quite different viruses could in fact trans-replicate each other: that is, the Rep/RepA complex of one virus could facilitate the replication of the genome of a virus differing by up to 35% in DNA sequence. We have also – we think – made nonsense of the old fancy that you could observe “host adaptation” of field isolates of MSV: we believe this was due to repeated selection by a single host genotype from the “cloud” of viruses transmitted during the natural infection cycle.

So, insight number three:

there is a survival benefit for the viruses in this strategy.

This is simple to understand, really, and relates to leafhopper biology as well as to host: the insects move around a lot, chasing juicy grasses, and it would be an obvious advantage to the streak virus complex to be able to replicate as a complex in each different host type – given that different virus genotypes have differential replication potential in the various backgrounds. This is quite significantly different, incidentally, to what happens with the very distantly-related (in terms of geological time) begomoviruses, or whitefly-transmitted geminiviruses: these typically do not trans-replicate each other across a gap of more than 10% of sequence difference.

Boring, I hear you say, but wait…. Add another factoid in, and profound insights start to emerge. In recent years, the cloud of protégés or virologist complex around me has accumulated to critical mass, and one of the most important things to emerge – apart from some frighteningly effective software for assessing recombination in viral genomes, which I wish he’d charge for – was Darren Martin’s finding that genome recombination is rife among African streak viruses. This was unexpected, given the expectation that DNA viruses simply don’t do that sort of thing; that promiscuous reassortment of components between genomes is a hallmark of RNA viruses. Makes sense in retrospect (an exact science), however, because of the constraints on DNA genomes: how else to explore sequence space, if the proof-reading is too good? And if you travel in a complex anyway…why not swap bits for biological advantage?

MSV web

Linkage map of the MSV genome, showing what interacts with what

So Darren swapped a whole lot of bits, in a tour-de-force of molecular virology, to create some 54 infectious chimaeric MSV genomes – and determined that

The pathogenicity of chimeras was strongly influenced by the relatedness of their parental viruses and evidence was found of nucleotide sequence-dependent interactions between both coding and intergenic regions“.

In other words –new insight:

the whole genome is a pathogenicity determinant, and bits of it interact with other bits in unexpected ways.

At this point you could say “Hey, all his insights are in fact hypotheses!” – and you would be partially correct, except for

Profound Insight No. 1hypotheses are the refuge of the linear-thinking.

Or its variant, found on my office wall:

“**c* the hypotheses, let’s just discover something”. I also have

“If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried” and a number of exotic beer bottle labels on my wall – but I digress….

As an aside here, I am quite serious in disliking hypothesis-driven science: I think it is a irredeemably reductionist approach, which does not easily allow for Big Picture overviews, and which closes out many promising avenues of investigation or even of thought. And I teach people how to formulate them so they can get grants and publications in later life, but I still think HDS is a tyranny that should be actively subverted wherever possible.

Be all this as it may, now follows

Profound Insight No. 2genome components may still be individually mobile even when covalently linked.

Now take a moment to think on this: recombination allows genes to swap around inside genetic backgrounds so as to constitute novel entities – and the “evolutionary value of exchanging a genome fragment is constrained by the number of ways in which the fragment interacts with the rest of the genome*“. Whether or not the genome is RNA, DNA, in one piece or divided. All of a sudden, the concept of a “virus genome” as a gene pool rather than a unitary thing becomes obvious – and so does the reductionism inherent in saying “this single DNA/RNA sequence is a virus”.

So try this on for size for a brand-new working definition of a virus – and

Profound Insight No. 3a virus is an infectious acellular entity composed of compatible genomic components derived from a pool of genetic elements.

Sufficiently paradigm-shifting for you? Compare it to more classical definitions – yes, including one by AJ Cann, Esq. – and see how much simpler it is. It also opens up the possibility that ANY virus as currently recognised is simply an operational assembly of components, and not necessarily the final article at all.

Again, my favourite organisms supply good object examples: the begomoviruses – whitefly-transmitted geminiviruses -

  • may have one- or two-component genomes;
  • some of the singleton A-type components may pick up a B-type in certain circumstances;
  • some doubletons may lose their B without apparent effect in model hosts;
  • some A components may apparently share B components in natural infections;
  • the A and B components recombine like rabbits with cognate molecules (or Bs can pick up the intergenic region from As);
  • in many cases have one or more satellite ssDNAs (β DNA, or nanovirus-related components) associated with disease causation;

…and so on, and on…. An important thing to note here is the lab-rat viruses – those isolated early on, and kept in model plant species in greenhouses – often don’t exhibit any of these strangenesses, whereas field-isolated viruses often do.

Which tells you quite a lot about model systems, doesn’t it?

But this is not only true of plant viruses: the zoo of ssDNA anello-like viruses found in humans and in animals – with several very distantly-related viruses to be found in any individual, and up to 80% of humans infected – just keeps on getting bigger and weirder. Added to the original TT virus – named originally for the initials of the Japanese patient from whom it was isolated, and in a post hoc exercise of convoluted logic, named Torque teno virus (TTV) [why don’t people who work with human or animal viruses obey ICTV rules??] – are now Torque teno minivirus (TTMV) and “small anellovirus” SAV) – all of which have generic status. And all of which may be the same thing – as in, TTVs at a genome size of 3.6–3.8 kb may give rise to TTMVs (2.8-29 kb) and SAVs (2.4-2.6 kb) as deletion mutants as part of a population cloud, where the smaller variants are trans-replicated by the larger. Thus, a whole lot of what are being described as viruses – without fulfilling Koch’s Postulates, I might point out – are probably only “hopeful monsters” existing only as part of a population. Funnily enough, this sort of thing is much better explored in the ssDNA plant virus community, given that working with plant hosts is so much easier than with human or animal.

And now we can go really wide, and attempt to be profound on a global scale: it should not have escaped your notice that the greatest degree of diversity among organisms on this planet is that of viruses, and viruses that are found in seawater in particular. There is a truly mind-boggling number of different viruses in just one ml of seawater taken from anywhere on Earth, which leads respectable authors such as Curtis Suttle to speculate that viruses almost certainly have a significant influence on not only populations of all other marine organisms, but even on the carbon balance of the world’s oceans – and therefore of the planet itself.

Which leads to the final, and most obvious,

Profound Insight (No. 4)in order to understand viruses, we should all be working on seawater…. 

That is where the diversity is, after all; that is where the gene pool that gave rise to all viruses came from originally – and who knows what else is being

Hypolith – cyanobacteria-derived, probably – under a piece of Namib quartzite from near Gobabeb Research Station

cooked up down there?

And this is the major update: not only have I managed to get funded for a project on “Marine Viromics” from our local National Research Foundation - a process akin to winning the lottery, and about as likely to succeed - I am also collaborating with friends and colleagues from the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics at the University of the Western Cape on viruses in desert soils, and associated with hypoliths- or algal growths found under quartzite rocks in extreme environments.

Thus, I shall soon be frantically learning how to deal with colossal amounts of sequence data, and worse, learning how to make sense of it.  We should have fun!

——————————————————————————————————————–

* And as a final curiosity, I find that while I – in common with the World Book Encyclop[a]edia and Learning Resources – take:mol|e|chism or mol|e|cism «MOL uh KIHZ uhm», noun. to mean any virus, viewed as an infective agent possessing the characteristics of both a living microorganism and a nonliving molecule; organule.
[molechism < mole(cule) + ch(emical) + (organ)ism; molecism < molec(ule) + (organ)ism] –
There is another meaning… something to do with sacrifice of children and burning in hellfire eternally. This is just to reassure you that this is not that.

Effect of Biodiversity Changes in Disease Risk: Exploring Disease Emergence in a Plant-Virus System

10 July, 2012

See on Scoop.itVirology News

“The effect of biodiversity on the ability of parasites to infect their host and cause disease (i.e. disease risk) is a major question in pathology, which is central to understand the emergence of infectious diseases, and to develop strategies for their management. Two hypotheses, which can be considered as extremes of a continuum, relate biodiversity to disease risk: One states that biodiversity is positively correlated with disease risk (Amplification Effect), and the second predicts a negative correlation between biodiversity and disease risk (Dilution Effect). Which of them applies better to different host-parasite systems is still a source of debate, due to limited experimental or empirical data. This is especially the case for viral diseases of plants. To address this subject, we have monitored for three years the prevalence of several viruses, and virus-associated symptoms, in populations of wild pepper (chiltepin) under different levels of human management. For each population, we also measured the habitat species diversity, host plant genetic diversity and host plant density. Results indicate that disease and infection risk increased with the level of human management, which was associated with decreased species diversity and host genetic diversity, and with increased host plant density. Importantly, species diversity of the habitat was the primary predictor of disease risk for wild chiltepin populations. This changed in managed populations where host genetic diversity was the primary predictor. Host density was generally a poorer predictor of disease and infection risk. These results support the dilution effect hypothesis, and underline the relevance of different ecological factors in determining disease/infection risk in host plant populations under different levels of anthropic influence. These results are relevant for managing plant diseases and for establishing conservation policies for endangered plant species.”

 

This is a fascinating study of host-pathogen interaction and disease emergence for gemini- and cucumoviruses in wild pepper in Mexico.  This is a great example of what one can do with modern technology coupled with good basic plant pathology / virology.

See on www.plospathogens.org

Complete Genome Sequence of a New Circular DNA Virus from Grapevine

26 June, 2012

See on Scoop.itVirology and Bioinformatics from Virology.ca

“A novel circular DNA virus sequence is reported from grapevine. The corresponding genomic organization, coding potential, and conserved origin of replication are similar to those of members of the family Geminiviridae, but the genome of 3,206 nucleotides is 4% larger than the largest reported geminiviral genome and shares only 50% overall sequence identity.”

Interesting stuff!  These novel ssDNA viruses are popping up everywhere – probably because they ARE everywhere, well adapted to natural hosts, only rarely transmitted to crop species, and we only stumble upon them by deep sequencing.  Or blind luck.

See on jvi.asm.org

Scoop.it: Virology News

11 February, 2012

This is just to announce that I will be regularly posting “Virology News” updates on a new Scoop.it site I have just set up – as well as occasionally updating another Scoop.it site – “Virology and Bioinformatics from Virology.ca” – which is curated by Chris Upton, of Univ Victoria in Canada.

Even more ways to get your daily viral fix…B-)

The REAL Top 10 for Plant Viruses

12 January, 2012

A recent MicrobiologyBytes post reported a slightly older Molecular Plant Pathology paper as giving a “Top Ten” ranking for plant viruses – at least, those of “…perceived importance, scientifically or economically, from the views of the contributors to the journal”.  Specifically, the article authors “…survey[ed] all plant virologists with an association with Molecular Plant Pathology and ask[ed] them to nominate which plant viruses they would place in a ‘Top 10’ based on scientific/economic importance”.  They got “…more than 250 votes from the international community”, and came up with the following list:

(1) Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV),
(2) Tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV),
(3) Tomato yellow leaf curl virus (TYLCV),
(4) Cucumber mosaic virus (CMV),
(5) Potato virus Y (PVY),
(6) Cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV),
(7) African cassava mosaic virus (ACMV),
(8) Plum pox virus (PPV),
(9) Brome mosaic virus (BMV) and
(10) Potato virus X (PVX),
with honourable mentions for viruses just missing out on the Top 10, including Citrus tristeza virus (CTV), Barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV), Potato leafroll virus (PLRV) and Tomato bushy stunt virus (TBSV).

Yes, well.  Um.  Now I have an acquaintance with Molecular Plant Pathology – a recent review and an Editorship on the short-lived MPP Online – as well as knowing 6 of the 12 authors personally and being electronically acquainted with another two, and I was never asked….  And Brome mosaic??  Sweet little virus, and I spent some 7 years working on it (a major part of my Hons, MSc and PhD theses, since you ask), but important??  Cauliflower mosaic, too: great virus; tough as an old boot, supplied one of the most used promoters (35S) for plant expression – but economically important??

Now I am in the position of having worked quite a lot with four of the Top Ten plus alternates (namely, TMV, CMV, BMV and BYDV), and maintain an affection borne of long acquaintance – yet I have a problem with this list, and it is rather fundamental.  You see, I see only ONE virus in the major list – African cassava mosaic begomovirus (ACMV) – that infects and causes severe losses in one of the four major food crops grown on this planet: all the rest, excepting viruses infecting the also-ran potato, are pathogens of fruits, vegetables or horticulturally-important plants.  Or hardly pathogenic at all, as in the case of BMV – and before anyone argues, I probably have the best collection of African (and other) isolates of the virus in the world, and a lot of experience of it in the field.

I wrote this as a response to the MicrobiologyBytes blog post:

Interesting list – but wrong, as many of these things often are. TYLCV more important than the various African cassava geminiviruses?? Nonsense! And where is Maize streak virus – the most important viral pathogen of the most important crop plant in Africa? Where too the rice viruses?? The world’s top food crops are rice, maize, wheat, cassava and bananas – so what about Maize rayado fino virus, Rice dwarf…? Banana bunchy top or banana streak? I can bet the majority of the plant virologists polled (I was not, nor was anyone I know from around these parts) were from the developed world, and the northern hemisphere.

Gary Foster – the last and communicating author – replied:

Not a case of ‘wrong’, more a case of many forms of ‘right’.

in the review we state….’we are very much aware that importance and priorities can vary locally across continents and disciplines.’ But in the review we took a global snapshot.

The idea was to promote discussion, and I knew you would take up the challenge ;-)

And again:

“People could vote on either scientific or economic importance. BMV is in Top 10 because of scientific importance as it states in the article….NOT economic.”

So here we go in taking up the challenge…!  First off, I think having a list of viruses where the economic importance ranges from “Major” through “Minor” to “Beneath Notice” is a cop-out, because it elevates scientific curiosities and sentimental favourites to equal or greater perceived importance to plant viruses that can actually lead to people dying.  I wrote in 1999, with my friend and colleague Gerhard Pietersen, a paper entitled “Plant virus disease problems in the developing world” (Rybicki EP, Pietersen, G; Adv Virus Res. 1999;53:127-75).  We took the view that the most important plant viruses in the world were those affecting the major food crops in the developing world specifically, seeing as these would affect the greatest number of people, and would probably be the least well controlled.  Our list, therefore, looks nothing like the one above.

Mrs Pauline Ruiru, on her farm near Githungiri, Kenya, in 1997 - note the devastated maize infected with MSV

In 1999, we wrote the following:

“The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has defined the major primary food crops (in order of volume grown ) in the developing world to be: (1) rice, (2) wheat, (3) maize, (4) cassava, (5) fresh vegetables, and (6) sweet potatoes. Other crops of major importance are sugarcane, oil palm fruit and soybeans.  The most important crops in the developing world as far as local populations are concerned, however, are bulk foods such as rice, maize, cassava, bananas, and sweet potatoes; vegetables such as beans and pumpkins; and fruits such as mangoes and coconuts”.

So: no tobacco, precious few tomatoes or potatoes, definitely no wheat, precious few things that could be affected by PPV…and 8 of the Top Ten gone, at a stroke.  I’ll allow the ACMD (African cassava mosaic disease) complex [note: NOT ACMV], and CMV, seeing as it infects damn nearly anything, including maize and most vegetables.

Another problem with the list as given above is that “TYLCV” is in fact better represented by a complex of reasonably distantly related geminiviruses which do similar things to tomatoes, in very different geographic areas: thus, we have the original TYLCV, as well as TYLC Sardinia V, and TYLCCNV and TYLCTHV – all separate species.  The supposed “ACMV” is probably neither the best studied nor even the most interesting of the ACMD agents: the East African CMV – ACMV recombinant virus which caused an epiphytotic in Uganda was far more economically important than ACMV, and has been followed in the literature (and in the field) by a host of brethren, all distantly enough related to be separate species (eg: SACMV), but all causing what looks like ACMD.

So what is my Top Ten?  I would not go as far – without researching and writing another review – as ranking them; however, from the basis of considering only viruses with sufficient economic impact to kill people if crops are affected, it would be these – ordered by crop importance.

Rice: the rice tungro disease agents RTBV, a dsDNA badnavirus, and rice tungro spherical virus RTSV, an ssRNA waikavirus, in Asia.  Rice yellow mottle (RYMV) ssRNA sobemovirus in Africa.  Rice hoja blanca virus (RHBV, ssRNA(-) Tenuivirus) in South America.

Wheat: Barley yellow dwarf luteoviruses (BYDV) – again, actually a complex of ssRNA viruses which in fact belong in different species – is almost certainly the worst viral pathogen of wheat worldwide.

A cryoEM image reconstruction of an MSV particle (Kyle Dent, EM Unit, UCT)

Maize: the ssDNA geminiviral pathogen Maize streak mastrevirus (MSV) is the worst viral pathogen of maize in the whole of Africa, where maize is the the most common staple food.  A recent review from our group – in Molecular Plant Pathology, I will note – details the very significant economic impact of the virus, as well as the considerable body of molecular virological research on it.  We wrote in 2009:

“Maize streak disease (MSD) was first recorded in South Africa by Claude Fuller (1901), the Government Entomologist of Natal. Fuller also quoted personal sources who noticed the disease of ‘mealie variegation’, as it was then described, as early as the 1870s. …Over 100 years later, MSD remains the most significant viral disease of Africa’s most important food crop (Bosque-Pérez, 2000), costing between US$120M and US$480M per year according to one conservative estimate based on average annual yield losses of only 6%–10%”.  As losses can be up to 100%, this is almost certainly an underestimate – Ed.

Staying with maize, Maize rayado fino virus (MRFV, ssRNA Marafivirus) is possibly the most important virus in North and especially South America.   The ssRNA potyviruses Maize dwarf mosaic and Sugarcane mosaic viruses are probably the most widespread viruses of maize, having essentially a worldwide distribution, and often being associated with severe disease.

Sweet potato: Sweet potato feathery mottle potyvirus (SPFMV) is probably the worst pathogen affecting this increasingly used crop worldwide, but pathology is exacerbated by co-infection with Sweet potato sunken vein closterovirus (SPSVV).

Main picture: cassava plant showing the effects of severe ACMD. Note lack of leaves, and of neighbouring plants. Insets, top: healthy leaves; middle, mild infection; bottom, severe infection. All photographs by EP Rybicki, taken in western Kenya, June, 1997

Cassava: the Africa-limited ACMD complex of ACMV, EACMV, SACMV and others together constitute a major threat to food security in the continent, especially given an increased use of cassava continent-wide.  As an object example of why I choose to go with the viruses mentioned, it is worth revisiting something I wrote in 1999:

“It is quite remarkable to pass within a few kilometers from areas with mild ACMD to areas where there are almost no cassava plants left growing. The inevitable lag in replacement of the crop by sweet potato, for example, results in severe hardship for farming families accustomed to using it as a staple in their diet. The wave of ACMD across Uganda may be a good example of the devastating effect of a plant virus on the human population.”

Twelve years on, I see no reason to revise the statement.

Bananas: the worst virus affecting bananas worldwide has to Banana bunchy top nanovirus (BBTV): this ssDNA pathogen has been identified in numerous developing countries in Oceania, Africa, and Asia and has caused devastating epidemics.  Also-rans include the dsDNA Banana streak badnavirus (BSV) – also found integrated into the genome of many Musa spp. – and the ssRNA Cucumber mosaic cucumovirus (CMV).

So, the Rybicki Top Ten (in alphabetical order):

  • African cassava mosaic disease begomovirus complex
  • Banana bunchy top nanovirus (BBTV)
  • Banana streak badnavirus (BSV)
  • Barley yellow dwarf disease luteovirus complex
  • Cucumber mosaic cucumovirus (CMV: OK, reluctantly, because it DOES infect damn nearly anything)
  • Maize streak mastrevirus (MSV)
  • Maize dwarf mosaic / Sugarcane mosaic potyviruses
  • Rice tungro disease complex
  • Rice yellow mottle sobemovirus (RYMV)
  • Sweet potato feathery mottle potyvirus (SPFMV)

Also-rans:

  • The legion of tomato begomoviruses worldwide, but especially in Asia
  • Tomato spotted wilt tospovirus, because it IS still an emerging virus
  • Various South American (mainly Brazilian) vegetable begomoviruses
  • Various potyviruses, mainly in vegetables, in Asia

So there it is – viruses causing severe hardship, affecting real people.  And my affectionate favourite would also be BMV…B-)

Virology Africa 2011: viruses at the V&A Waterfront 2

19 December, 2011

We thank Russell Kightley for permission to use the images

Marshall Bloom (Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID) opened the plenary session on Thursday the 1st of December, with a talk on probing the pathogen-vector-host interface of tickborne flaviruses.   Although thoroughly infected with a rhinovirus, he held our attention most ably while reminding us that while many flaviviruses are tick borne, the hard and soft body ticks that vector them are very phylogenetically different – as different as they are from spiders – meaning that if similar flaviruses replicated in them, these viruses may have much wider host range than we know.

He pointed out that while about 95% of the virus life cycle takes place in a tick, transmission to a vertebrate means suddenly adapting to a very different host.  Infection in ticks is persistent, as befits their vector role – but vertebrate infection generally is not.  It was interesting, as a sometime plant virologist, to hear that they look for dsRNA as a marker for replication, and do Ab staining for it: the technique was invented with plant viruses, and very few other virologists seem to appreciate that dsRNA can be quite easily isolated and detected.

They compared Vero and tick cells for virus replication, and saw significant differences: while tick cells could go out to 60+ days and look fine, Vero cells were severely affected at much shorter times post infection.  There was also 100-fold less virus in tick cells, and prominent tubular structures in old infected tick cells.  He noted that ticks evade host defences quite efficiently: eg they suppress host clotting during feeding, and there is huge gene activation in the tick during feeding.  In another study to envy, they are doing array work on ticks to see what is regulated and how.

 Linda Dixon (Institute for Animal Health, Pirbright, UK) recounted her lab’s work on African swine fever (ASFV), a poxvirus-like large DNA virus.  The virus is endemic to much of Africa, and keeps escaping – and there is no effective  vaccine to prevent spread, so regulation is by slaughter.  There are 3 types of isolate, with the most highly pathogenic causing up to 10% fatality and a haemorrhagic syndrome.  She described how in 2007 the virus had spread from Africa to Georgia, then in 2009 to southern Russia and all way to the far north, in wild boar.

There are more than 50 proteins in the dsDNA-containing virion; two infectious forms similar to the poxviruses with multilayer membranes and capsid layers can form, and neutralising Ab play no part in protection as a result.  They studied the interaction of viruses with cells and the immune system, and compared the genomes of pathogenic and non-pathogenic strains, in order to understand how to develop an effective vaccine.

The biggest differences were large deletions in non-virulent isolates, including genes coding for  proteins responsible for binding to RBC, and various immune evasion multicopy genes.  They planned to target regions to delete to make an attenuated virus for vaccine.  They had found non-essential genes involved in immune evasion, and ones that lower virulence, and had been systematically cutting them out.  She noted that pigs can be protected if they survive natural infection and if vaccinated with TC-attenuated virus, and can be protected by passive transfer of Abs from immune pigs – which indicated that an effective live vaccine was very possible.

Subunit vaccines were being investigated, and they had found partial protection with baculovirus-expressed proteins.  They were doing genome-wide screens for protective Ag, and were pooling Ags expressed from predicted ORFs in immunization trials – up to 47 Ags without reduction in specific  T cell responses.

Discovery One

My former labmate Dion du Plessis (Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, OVI) made a welcome return to Cape Town, with a talk entitled “2011: A Phage Odyssey”.  He explained the title by noting the distinct resemblance of P1 coliphage to the Discovery One spacecraft dreamed up by Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick – and then went on to exuberantly and idiosyncratically recount a brief history of bacteriophages and their use in biotechnology since their discovery.  A revelation from his talk was that the first discovery of phages was probably described by a gentleman named Hankin, in 1896 in Annales de l’Institut Pasteur: he

The 1896 paper from Annales de l'Institut Pasteur

showed that river water downstream of cholera-infested towns on the Jumma river in India contained no viable Cholera vibrio – and that this was a reliable property of the water.  We were also introduced to the concept of turtles as undertakers in the Ganges….

He took us through the achievements of the Phage Group of Max Delbruck and others – where science was apparently fun, but also resulted in the establishment of modern molecular biology – through to the use of phages as exquisitely sensitive indicators immunochemistry studies in the 1960s.

All too soon we got to the modern uses of phages, with 3 types of gene library – random peptide, fragmented gene, and antibody V regions – being used to make recombinant phage tail proteins to be used for “panning” and enrichment purposes, in order to select either specific antibodies or antigens.  Dion manages a research programme at OVI aimed at developing a new generation of veterinary vaccines – and has for some years now been making significant progress in generating reagents from a chicken IgY single-chain Fv phage display library.

Carolyn Williamson (IIDMM, UCT) gave us an update on CTL epitopes associated with control of HIV-1 subtype C infections.  She said that it was now known that genome-wide association studies (GWAS) gives you certain HLAs which are associated with low viral load, and others with high – meaning that to some extent at least, control of infection was down to genetic luck.  She noted that they and others had shown that CTL escape was quick: this generally happened in less than 5 weeks in acute phase infections.

They had looked for evidence of a fitness cost of CTL escape – and shown that it exists.  She noted that this meant that even if one has “bad” HLA genes, if one was infected with a virus with fitness cost mutations from another, that one could still control infection.

It had been shown that “controllers” mainly have viruses with attenuating mutations, or have escapes in the p24 region – and it was a possible vaccine strategy to include these mutated epitopes in vaccines to help people with infections control their infections.

An interesting topic she broached was that of dual infections – there was the possibility of modelling if infection with two different viruses results in increased Ab neutralisation breadth, and if one would get different results if infections were staggered, possibly with increased nAb evolution if isolates were divergent.  She noted it was possible to track recombination events with dual virus infections too.

It was interesting that, as far as Ab responses went, there were independent responses to 2 variants and one could get a boost in Ab titres to the superinfecting virus, but not a boost to Abs reacting with the originally-infecting virus

Carolyn was of the opinion that HIV vaccines needed to include CTL epitopes where escape is associated with fitness cost.  She also reiterated that superinfection indicated that one can boost novel responses, which I take to mean that therapeutic applications are possible.

Ulrich Desselberger (University of Cambridge) is a long-time expert on rotaviruses and the vaccines against them, and it was a pleasure to finally hear him speak – and that he was mentoring young people in South Africa.  He said that more than a third of children admitted to hospital worldwide were because of rotavirus infections, meaning that the viruses were still a major cause of death and morbidity – and they were ubiquitous.

He reviewed the molecular biology and replication cycle of rotaviruses in order to illustrate where they could be targeted for prevention of infection or therapy, and noted that drugs that interfere with lipid droplet homeostasis interfere with rotavirus replication because 2 viral proteins associated proteins of lipid droplets.

He stated that there were lots of recent whole-genome sequences – we already there were many types, based on the 2 virion surface proteins; we  now know that other genes are also highly variable.  As far as correlates of immunity were concerned, VP7 & 4 were responsible for eliciting neutralising Ab.  Additionally, protective efficacy of VP6 due to elicitation of non-neutralising Ab had been shown in mice – but not in piglets, and not convincingly in humans.  Abs to VP2, and NSP2 and 4 were also partially protective in humans.  It was interesting that protection was not always correlated with high titre nAb responses.

He noted that in clinical disease primary infections partially protected against subsequent infections which are normally milder; subsequently no disease was seen even when infection occurred.  Cross-protection occurred at least partially after initial infection, and this got better after more exposure.  There was evidence one could get intracellular neutralisation by transcytosed Ab, and especially to VP6.  Ab in the gut lumen was a good indication of protection.

As far as the live modern vaccines were concerned, Merck’s Rotateq elicited type-specific nAb, with 9% of recipients shedding live virus.  GSK’s Rotarix gets elicits cross-reactive nAb and one gets 50% of recipients shedding virus.

While the vaccines seemed safe, he noted that where vaccines had been introduced, efficacy ranged from 90% in the USA and Europe, down to as low as 48% in Bangladesh, Malawi and SA, due to type mismatch, and that efficacy was correlated inversely with disease incidence and child mortality generally.  He mentioned that there had been much VLP work, but that none of the candidates was near licensure.

Johan Burger (Stellenbosch University) spoke on one of the more important non-human virus problems in our immediate environment – specifically, those affecting wine grape production in our local area.  He opened by stating that SA now produced 3.7% of the world’s wine, making grapes a nationally and especially locally important crop.  Leafroll disease was a major worldwide problem – as well as being the reason for the wonderful autumn reddening seen in grapevines, it also significantly limited production in affected vineyards.  His laboratory has done a lot of work in both characterising viruses in grapevine, and trying to engineer resistance to them.  Lately they were also investigating the use of engineered miRNAs as a response to and means of controlling, virus infection.

His group has for a couple of years been involved in “metaviromic” or high-throughput sequencing studies of grapevines, with some significant success in revealing unsuspected infections.  In this connection, he and Don Cowan pointed out that they had lots of data that they ignore – but which we should keep and study, as a resource for other studies not yet thought of.

As far as Johan’s work went, novel viruses kept popping up, including grapevine virus E (GVE), which hitherto had only been found in Japan.  They were presently looking at Shiraz disease, which was unique to SA, and was still not understood.  This was infectious, typified by a lack of lignification which led to rubbery vines, and kills plants in 5 years.  It also limits the production of the eponymous grapes – a crime when SA shirazes seem to be doing so well!

Veterinary Virology and Vaccines parallel session.

I again dodged the clinical / HIV session because of my personal biases, and was again treated to a smorgasbord of delight: everyone spoke well, and to time, and I was really gratified to see so many keen, smart young folk coming through in South African virology.  It was also very interesting to see highly topical subjects like Rift Valley fever and rare bunyavirus outbreaks being thoroughly covered, so I will concentrate on these.

P Jansen van Veeren (NICD, Johaanesburg) was again a speaker, this time representing his absent boss, Janusz Paweska.  He gave an account of the 2010 Rift Valley fever outbreak in SA, and epidemiological findings in humans – something of keen interest to me.  He said there had been some forecasting success for outbreaks in East Africa; however, there were long gaps between outbreaks, which were generally linked to abnormal rainfall and movement of mosquito and animal hosts.  RVFV isolates differed in pathogenicity but were structurally and serologically indistinguishable – because virulence was due to the NSs protein, and not a virion component.  He recounted how artificial flooding of a dambo in Kenya resulted in a population boom in the floodwater Aedes mosquitoes responsible for inititating an outbreak, and then of the Culex which maintained the epidemic.  He said there was a strong correlation between viral load and disease severity.

In terms of South African epidemiology, there had been smaller outbreaks from 2008 round the Kruger National Park (NE SA), then in the Northern Cape and KZN in 2009.  People had been infected from autopsy of animals, and handling butchered animal parts.  The 2010 outbreak started in the central Free State after an unusually wet period, and had then spread to all provinces except Limpopo and KZN.  In-house serological methods at the NICD were validated in-house too: these were HAI screening and IgM and IgG ELISAs and a virus neutralisation test.  They had got 1600+ samples of human serum, and confirmed 242 cases of disease and 26 deaths for 2010.

He noted that with winter rains there was a continuous outbreak in the Western Cape, and in 2011 the epidemic had started again in the Eastern and Western Cape Provinces, but has since tailed off.  Some 82% of human cases were people who occupationally handled dead animals, although there was some possibility of transmission by mosquitoes.

In human cases there was viraemia from 2-7 days, with IgM present transiently from 3 days at low level.  They had sequenced partial GP2 after PCR from 47 isolates, and showed some recombination occurring.  The 2010 isolates were very closely related to each other, and to a 2004 Namibian isolate.  There had been no isolation from mosquitoes yet.

Two talks on FMDV followed: Belinda Blignaut (OVI and Univ Pretoria) spoke on indirect assessment of vaccine matching by serology, and Rahana Dwarka (OVI) on a FMDV outbreak in KZN Province in 2011.  Belinda’s report detailed how 6 of 7 serotypes of FMDV occur in SA, with SAT-1 and -2 and O the most common – and that vaccines needed to be matched to emerging strains.  This was done by indirect vaccine matching tests such as serological r-value, determined by the ratio of the reciprocal serum titre to the heterologous virus against that to the homologous virus.  They had put 4 different viruses into cattle and got sera to test a range of 26 newly isolated viruses.  While they had not got sequence from the test panel viruses, indications were that topotype 3 viruses are antigenically more disparate and that a vaccine consisting of topotype 1 or 2 antigens may not be effective in the control of FMD.

In introducing Rahana’s talk, the chair (Livio Heath, OVI) mentioned that there had been 5 different major animal pathogens causing outbreaks in SA over the last 3 years – and that they had to produce reagents and validate tests for ASFV, classical swine fever (CSF) and FMDV, etc, with each outbreak.  Rahana described how they had neutralisation assays and blocking and competition ELISA for FMDV, as well as a big database of isolates from buffalo in KZN – so they were well-placed to type viruses found in cattle in the region.

C van Eeden (Univ Pretoria) had an intriguing account of their investigation of the occurrence of an orthobunyavirus causing neurological symptoms in horses and wildlife.  Horses seem to be particularly vulnerable to many of the viruses involved in such disease, and so are a useful sentinel species.  Shuni virus was first isolated from Culicoides midges and sheep and a child in Nigeria in the 1960s.  SA workers subsequently found it in some livestock and Culex mosquitoes and in horses.  The virus was shown to be a neurologic disease agent in horses and wildlife – then disappeared for some 30 years, much like Ebola.  There is apparently a new research unit at UP with a BSL3 lab, so they are well equipped to do tests with the virus.

Ms van Eeden noted that the incidence of encephalitic disease in humans and animal in SA is underreported, and the causes are mainly unknown – a revelation to me!  Horses are susceptible to many of the agents, and are useful sentinels – workers have identified flavi- and alphaviruses in some outbreaks, but many are not IDed.  They had done cell culture and EM on samples from an ataxic horse: they got a bunyavirus-like virus by EM, and did bunya-specific PCR, and got Shuni virus back.  Sequence relationships showed no linkage to type of animal or date, in subsequent samplings from horses, crocodiles,  a rhino and a warthog, and from blood, brain and spinal cord.  All positive wildlife were sampled in Limpopo Province; horses only from most other provinces.

She noted that latest cases were neurological, whereas previously these were mainly febrile.  The virus accounted for 10% all neurological cases, with a 50% fatality rate.  She noted further that vets often work without masks or gloves, and so had no protection from exposure in such cases….  There was no idea on what the vector was, but they would like to test mosquitoes, etc.  Ulrich Desselberger suggested  rodents may be a reservoir, but they don’t know if this is true.

Stephanie van Niekerk (Univ Pretoria) investigated alphaviruses as neurological disease agents in African wildlife.  The most common alphaviruses in SA are Sindbis and Middelburg viruses.  Old World alphaviruses are usually not too bad, and cause arthritic and febrile symptoms, while New World cause severe neurological diseases.  Sindbis was been found in SA outbreaks in 1974.  However, Stephanie noted that a severe neurological type had appeared since 2008 in horses.  Accordingly, they looked at unexplained cases in wildlife in the period 2009-2011: brain and spinal cord samples were investigated for all cases.  They found alphavirus in a number of rhinos, buffalo, warthog, crocodiles and jackal – and all except for one rhino were Middelburg virus.  They want to isolate viruses in cell culture, and increase the size of regions used for cDNA PCR.  Stephanie said the opinion was that the values of the animal involved justifies the development of vaccines.

 

Virology Africa 2011: viruses at the V&A Waterfront 1

12 December, 2011

We thank Russell Kightley for permission to use the images

Anna-Lise Williamson and I again hosted the Virology Africa Conference (only the second since 2005!), at the University of Cape Town‘s Graduate School of Business in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.  While this was a local meeting, with just 147 attendees, we had a very international flavour in the plenaries: of 18 invited talks, 9 were by foreign guests.  Plenaries spanned the full spectrum of virology, ranging from discovery virology to human papillomaviruses to HIV vaccines to tick-borne viruses to bacteriophages found in soil to phages used as display vectors, and to viromes of whole vineyards.  There were a further 52 contributed talks and 41 posters, covering topics from human and animal clinical studies, to engineering plants for resistance to viruses.

A special 1-day workshop on “Human Papillomaviruses – Vaccines and Cervical Cancer Screening” preceded the main event: this was sponsored by Merck Sharp & Dohme, Roche and Aspen Pharmacare, and had around 90 attendees.  Anna-Lise Williamson (NHLS & IIDMM, UCT) opened the workshop with a talk entitled “INTRODUCTION TO HPV IN SOUTH AFRICA – SCREENING FOR CERVICAL CANCER AND VACCINES”, and set  the stage for Jennifer Moodley (Community Health Dept, UCT) to cover health system issues around the prevention of cervical cancer in SA, and the newly-minted Dr Zizipho Mbulawa (Medical Virology, UCT) to speak on the the impact of HIV infection on the natural history of HPV.  This last issue is especially interesting, given that HIV-infected women may have multiple (>10) HPV types and progress faster to cervical malignancies, and HPV infection is a risk factor for acquisition of HIV.  The Roche-sponsored guest, Peter JF Snijders (VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam), gave an excellent description of novel cervical screening options using primary HPV testing, to be followed by two accounts of cytological screening in public and private healthcare systems in SA, by Irene le Roux (National Health Laboratory Service) and Judy Whittaker (Pathcare), respectively.  Ulf Gyllensten (University of Uppsala, Sweden) described the Swedish experience with self-sampling and repeat screening for the prevention of cervical cancer, especially in groups that are not reached by standard screening modalities.  Hennie Botha and Haynes van der Merwe (both University of Stellenbosch) closed out the session with talks on the effect of the HIV pandemic on cervical cancer screening, and a project aimed at piloting adolescent female vaccination against HPV infection in Cape Town.

The next part of the Workshop overlapped with the Conference opening, with a Keynote address by Margaret Stanley (Cambridge University) on how HPV evades host defences (sponsored by MSD), and another by Hugues Bogaert (HB Consult, Gent, Belgium)) on comparisons of the cross-protection by the two HPV vaccines currently registered worldwide (sponsored by Aspen Pharmacare). Margaret Stanley’s talk was a masterclass on HPV immunology: the concept that such a seemingly simple virus (only 8 kb of dsDNA) could interact with cells in such a complex way, was a surprise for all not acquainted with the viruses.  Bogaert’s talk was interesting in view of the fact that the GSK offering, which has only only two HPV types, raises far higher titre antibody responses than the MSD vaccine with four HPV types, AND seems to elicit better cross-protective antibodies: this should help inform choice of product from the individual point of view.  However, the fact that MSD seems able to respond better to national healthcare system tenders in terms of price per dose is also a major factor in the adoption stakes.

The Conference proper started with a final address by Barry Schoub, long-time but now retired Director of the National Institute of Virology / National Institute of Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg, and also long-time CEO of the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation (PRF): this is possibly the premier funding agency for anything to do with viruses in South Africa, and a major sponsor of the Conference.  He spoke on the history of the PRF, and how it had managed to shepherd an initial endowment of around 1 million pounds in the 1950s, to over ZAR100 million today – AND to dispense many millions in research project and bursary funding in South Africa over several decades.

The first session segued into a welcoming cocktail reception and registration at the Two Oceans Aquarium in the V&A Waterfront: this HAS to be one of the only social events for an academic conference where the biggest sharks are the ones in the tank, and not in the guest list!  I think people were suitably blown away – as always, in the aquarium – and the tone was set for the rest of the meeting.  The wine and food were good, too.

The first morning session of the conference featured virus hunting and HIV vaccines, as well as plant-made vaccines and more HPV.  W Ian Lipkin (Columbia University, USA) opened with “Microbe Hunting” – which lived up to its title very adequately, with discussion of a plethora of infectious agents.  As well as of the methods newly used to discover them, which include high-throughput sequencing, protein arrays, very smart new variants on PCR….  I could see people drooling in the audience; the shop window was tempting enough to make one jump ship to work with him without a second thought.  He said that probably 99% of vertebrate viruses remain to be discovered, and that advances in DNA sequencing technology were a major determinant in the rapidly-increasing pace of discovery.  He made the point that while the emphasis in the lab had shifted from wet lab people to bioinformatics, he thought it would move back again as techniques get easier and more automated – meaning (to me) that there is no substitute for people who understand the actual biological problems.  It was interesting that, while telling us of his work on the recently-released blockbuster “Contagion” – where “the virus is the star!” – he showed a slide with a computer in the background running a recombination detection package called RDP, which was designed in South Africa.  It can also be seen in the trailer, apparently.  Darren Martin will not be looking for royalties or screen credits, however.

Don Cowan (University of the Western Cape) continued the discovery theme, albeit with bacteriophages as the target rather than vertebrate viruses.  It is worth emphasising that phages probably represent the biggest source of genetic diversity on this planet – and given how even the most extreme of microbes have several kinds of viruses, as Don pointed out, it is possible that this extends to neighbouring planets too [my speculation - Ed].  He occupies an interesting niche – much like the microbes he hunts – in that he specialises in both hot and cold terrestrial desert environments, which are drastically understudied in comparison to marine habitats.  He made the interesting point that metagenome sequencing studies such as his own generate data that is in danger of being discarded without reuse, given that folk tend to take what they are interested out of it and neglect the rest.

Anna-Lise Williamson (NHLS, IIDMM, UCT) then described the now-defunct SA AIDS Vaccine Initiative vaccine development project at UCT.  It is rather sobering to revisit a project that used to employ some 45 people, and had everything from Salmonella, BCG, MVA, DNA and insect cell and plant-made subunit HIV vaccines in the pipeline – and now employs just 5, to service the two vaccines that made it into into clinical trial.  The BCG-based vaccines continued to be funded by the NIH, however, and the SA National Research Foundation funds novel vaccine approaches.  Despite all the funding woes, the first clinical trial is complete with moderate immunogenicity and no significant side effects, and two more are planned: these are an extension of the first – HVTN073/SAAVI102 – with a Novartis-made subtype C gp140 subunit boost, and the other is HVTN086/SAAVI103, which compprises different commbinations of DNA, MVA and gp140 vaccines.

It was clear from the talk that if South Africa wants to support local vaccine development, the government needs to support appropriate management structures to enable this – and above all, to provide funding.  However, all is not lost, as much of the remaining expertise in several of the laboratories that were involved in the HIV vaccine programme can now involve themselves in animal vaccine projects.

Plant-made HPV16 VLPs

Ed Rybicki made it an organisational one-two with an after-tea plenary on why production of viral vaccines in plants is a viable rapid-response option for emerging or re-emerging diseases or bioterror threats.  The talk briefly covered the more than 20 year history of plant-made vaccines, highlighting important technological advances and proofs of concept and efficacy, and concentrated on the use of transient expression for the rapid, high-level expression of subunit vaccines.  Important breakthoughs that were highlighted included the development of the Icon Genetics TMV-based vectors, Medicago Inc and Fraunhofer USA’s recent successes with H5N1 and H1N1 HA protein production in plants – and the Rybicki group’s successes with expression of HPV L1-based and E7 vaccine candidates.  The talk emphasised how the technology was inherently more easily scalable, and quicker to respond to demand, than conventional approaches to vaccine manufacture – and how it could profitably be applied to “orphan vaccines” such as for Lassa fever.

Ulf Gyllensten had another innings in the main conference, with a report on a study of a possible linkage of gene to disease in HPV infections – which could explain why some people clear infections, and why some have persistent infections.  They used the Swedish cancer registry (a comprehensive record since the end of the 1950s) to calculate familial relative risk of cancer of the cervix (CC): relative risk was  2x for a full sister, the same for a mother-daughter pair and the risk for a half sister was 50% higher while risk was not linked to non-biological siblings or parents, meaning the link was not environmental.  A preliminary study found HLA alleles associated with CC, and increased carriage of genes was linked to increased  viral load.   A subsequent genome wide association study using an Omni Express Bead Chip detecting700K+ SNPs yielded one area of major interest, on Chr 6 – this is a HLA locus.  They got 3 independent signals in the HLA region and can now potentially link HPV type and host genotype for a prediction of disease outcome.  Again, the kinds of technology available could only be wished for here; so too the registry and survey options.

Molecular and General Virology contributed talks parallel session

I attended this because of my continued fascination with veterinary and plant viruses – and because Anna-Lise was covering the Clinical and Molecular session – and was not disappointed: talks were of a very high standard, and the postgraduate students especially all gave very good accounts of themselves.

Melanie Platz (Univ Koblenz-Landau, Germany) kicked off with a description of a fascinating interface between mathematics and virology for early warning, spatial awareness and other applications.  She gave an example using a visual representation of risk using GIS for Chikungunya virus, based on South African humidity and temperature data going back nearly 100 years: this had a 3D plot model, into which one could plug data to get predictions of mosquito likelihood.  They could generate risk maps from the data, to both inform public and policy / planning.  They had a GUI for mobile devices for public information, including estimates of risk and what to do about it, including routes of escape.

Cover Illustration: J Virol, October 2011, volume 85, issue 20

This was followed by one of my co-supervised PhD students, Aderito Monjane – who recently got the cover of Journal of Virology with his paper on modelling maize streak virus (MSV) movement and evolution, so I will not detail more here.  However, even as a co-supervisor I was blown away by the fact that he was able to show animations of MSV spread – at  30 km/yr, across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

Christine Rey of Wits University provided another state-of-the-art geminivirus talk, with an account of the use of siRNAs and derivatives for silencing cassava-infecting geminiviruses.  They were using genomic miRNA precursors as templates to make artificial miRNAs containing viral sequences, meaning they got no interference with nuclear processing and there was less chance of recombination with other viruses, a high target specificity, and the transgenes would not be direct targets of virus-coded suppressors.  They could also use multiple miRNAs to avoid mutational escape.  The concept was successful in tobacco, and they had got transformation going well for cassava, so hopes were high for success there.

Dionne Shepherd (UCT) spoke on our laboratory’s 15+ year work on engineered resistance in maize to MSV.  She pointed out that the virus threatens the livelihood of 200 million+ subsistence farmers in Africa, and is thought to be the biggest disease concern in maize – which is still the biggest edible crop in Africa.  Most of the work has been described elsewhere with another journal cover; however, new siRNA-based constructs still under investigation were even more effective than the previous dominant negative mutant-based protection: the latter gave 50-fold reduction in virus replication, but silencing allowed > 200-fold suppression of replication.

2-colour surface rendition of HcRNAV

Arvind Varsani – a former UCT vaccinology PhD who is now a structural biology and virology lecturer at Univ Christchurch (NZ) – described what is probably the first 3D structure of a virus to come out of Africa.  This was of a 30 nm isometric ssRNA virus – Heterocapsa circularisquama RNA virus (HcRNAV) – infecting a dinoflagellate, which is one of the most noxious red tide bloom agents and is a major factor in killing farmed oysters.  The virus apparently controls the diatom populations.  There are two distinct strains of virus, and specificity of infection is due to the entry process, as biolistic bombardment obviates the block.  The single capsid protein probably has the classic jelly-roll β-barrel fold, but they observe a new packing arrangement that is only distantly related to the other ssRNA (+) virus capsids known.  They will go on to look at structural differences between strains that change cell entry properties.

FF Maree from the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute and the Univ Pretoria spoke on structural design of FMDV to improve vaccine strains: they wished to engineer viruses by inserting the cell culture adapted HSPG-binding signature sequence and to mutate capsid residues to increase the heat stability of SAT-2 subtype virus vaccines.  If they put the signature sequence in a SAT1 virus, they found it could infect CHO cells – which do not express any of 4 integrins that FMDV binds to, but are far better for large-scale production of the virus than the BHK cells used till now.  It was also possible to increase hydrophobic interactions in the capsid by modeling: eg a VP2 Ser to Tyr replacement gave a considerably better thermal inactivation profile to the virus.

Daria Rutkowska (Univ Pretoria) detailed how African horsesickness orbivirus (AHSV) VP7 protein had significant potential as a scaffold that could act as a vaccine carrier.  The native protein formed as trimers assembled in a VP3+VP7 “core” particle; however, the VP7 when expressed alone could form soluble trimmers – and the “top” domain hydrophilic loop can tolerate large inserts.  The group had very promising FMDV P1 peptide responses from engineered VP7 constructs, including protection of experimental animals.

P Jansen van Veeren of the National Institute of Communicable Disease in Johannesburg finished off the session, with a description of the cellular pathology caused by Rift Valley fever bunyavirus (RVFV) in mice in acute infections.  The virus seems to have been of particular international interest recently as a potential bioterror agent; however, global warming is also responsible for its mosquito vector spreading outside of its natural base in Africa to the Arabian peninsula, and there are fears of the virus getting into Europe soon.  While there are vaccines against the virus, including a live attenuated version, none are licenced for human use.  It was interesting to hear that the viral NP appears to be the main immunogen, as there are massive amounts of NP produced in infection, and huge responses to it in infected animals – and NP immunisation protects mice.  There is a good Ab response but it is not neutralising, while NP is released independently of other proteins from infected cells.  The liver is the major target of virus infection, with a bias to apoptosis of hepatocytes and severe inflammatory responses.  Viral load is linked to these effects and is much lower in vaccinees.  Immunisation reduces liver replication markedly; that in the spleen less so.  A screen of cytokines and other gene responses showed a big down-regulation of many genes in non-vaccinated mice to do with cytokines, and down-regulation of B and T cells and NK cells.  He thinks recombinant vaccine candidates should have both the surface glycoproteins and the NP in order to be effective – and that there is a major need for proper reagents for big animal studies.

Silence(d) is Golden (mosaic)…

12 October, 2011

Geminivirus particle: characteristic doubled icosahedron containing a single ssDNA (courtesy Russell Kightley)

About that title…I read in my Nature News on the iPad about the use of siRNA in transgenic beans to silence expression of the Bean golden mosaic begomovirus, and I irresistibly thought of this…B-)

To serious matters – said article reported the following:

“Brazilian scientists roll out a transgenic pinto bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) engineered to fend off one of the crop’s most devastating enemies: the golden mosaic virus. Approved on 15 September by the Brazilian National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio), the transgenic bean uses RNA interference to shut down replication of the virus [reported originally in Mol Plant Microbe Interac in 2007].”

This paper reported the following:

“…we explored the concept of using an RNA interference construct to silence the sequence region of the AC1 viral gene and generate highly resistant transgenic common bean plants. Eighteen transgenic common bean lines were obtained with an intron-hairpin construction to induce post-transcriptional gene silencing against the AC1 gene. One line (named 5.1) presented high resistance (approximately 93% of the plants were free of symptoms) upon inoculation at high pressure (more than 300 viruliferous whiteflies per plant during the whole plant life cycle) and at a very early stage of plant development. “

OK, some background: Bean golden mosaic virus (BGMV) is a begomovirus, a representative of the largest genus of the Geminiviridae, and one of the more devastating viral plant pathogens on the planet.  It is a single-stranded circular DNA virus with a very distinct particle morphology, which replicates its genome by a rolling circle mechanism shared by all geminiviruses, nanoviruses, circoviruses, microviruses and pretty much any other ssDNA virus, as well as some plasmids.

RNA silencing – once known as post-transcriptional gene silencing, before the field was usurped by non-plant virologists – is a natural mechanism used by plants in particular as an adaptive immune response to plant viruses, as well as to control gene expression.  It is a complicated process, involving the formation of double-stranded RNAs from complementary sequences, transcribed from DNA or RNA genomes, which are then chopped up into shorter 21-25 base-length sequences.  These small interfering (si) RNAs are dissociated, and are free to bind to complementary sequences in the plant cell cytoplasm – and target them for degradation by a particular set of enzymes.  This happens frequently in transgenic plants, where the desired over-expression of a particular gene may be frustrated by the plant promptly silencing it.  It is also part of an arms race between plant viruses and plants, with nearly all plant viruses demonstrating some ability to interfere with siRNA silencing.

Geminiviruses are no exception: a number of papers have explored silencing suppression by geminiviruses, with a review by Dave Bisaro prominent among them.  Who is also famous for singing “Born to be Wild” in a Spanish karaoke bar in 1994 with a number of other geminivirologists, who called themselves “Subgroup IV” – but I digress.

It is interesting, then, that one can make transgenic plants expressing siRNA specific for a geminivirus gene – and get silencing of viral expression, and effective immunity to the virus: this would seem to have potential for a deathmatch, with the plant trying to silence virus-coded RNA, while the virus tries to suppress RNA silencing by the plant…as well as the fact that it is a DNA virus, and silencing is mediated at the level of cytoplasmic RNA.

But it obviously works – and probably because the siRNA is being expressed constitutively, meaning the virus infecting the first cell(s) gets shut down before it has a chance to get expression going.  The choice of gene – the “AC1″ or Rep – is also important, as expression of mRNA from this is at a very low level, and it is crucial for virus genome replication.  This means that shutting it down stops any DNA replication from occurring.

So Viva! Brasil, Viva! as we South African are fond of saying.  Southern hemisphere rules geminivirus resistance, OK…because we have more than a passing interest in the same phenomenon…B-)


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