Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Virology Africa 2015: Update and Registration

19 August, 2015

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN – VIROLOGY AFRICA 2015

On behalf of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine of the University of Cape Town and the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation, we are pleased to invite you to Virology Africa 2015 at the Cape Town Waterfront.

VENUE AND DATES:

The conference will run from Tuesday 1st – Thursday 3rd December 2015. The conference venue is the Radisson Blu Hotel with a magnificent view of the ocean. The hotel school next door will host the cocktail party on the Monday night 30th November and in keeping with Virology Africa tradition, the dinner venue is the Two Oceans Aquarium.

IMPORTANT DATES

Early Bird Registration closes – 30 September 2015
Abstract Submissions deadline – 30 September 2015

The ACADEMIC PROGRAMME will include plenary-type presentations from internationally recognised speakers. We wish to emphasise that this is intended as a general virology conference – which means we will welcome plant, human, animal and bacterial virology contributions. The venue will allow for parallel workshops of oral presentations. There will also be poster sessions. Senior students will be encouraged to present their research. We have sponsorship for students to attend the meeting and details will be announced later in the year.

A program outline has been added to the website

WORKSHOPS

Our preliminary programme includes two workshops.

There is a hands-on workshop on “Plant cell packs for transient expression: Innovating the field of molecular biopharming”, with the contact person being Dr Inga Hitzeroth – Inga.Hitzeroth@uct.ac.za. This workshop will run at UCT one day before the conference, 30th November, and a second day, 4th December, after the conference.

The second workshop is on “”Viromics for virus discovery and viral community analysis”. The workshop at UCT will be on 4 and 5 December with the contact person being Dr Tracy Meiring – tracy.meiring@uct.ac.za.

Some of the workshop presenters will be integrated into the conference programme but the practical components will be run at University of Cape Town. Separate applications are necessary for each workshop.

If you are prepared to fund an internationally recognised scientist to speak at the conference or if you wish to organise a specialist workshop as part of the conference, please contact
Anna-Lise Williamson or Ed Rybicki.

For any enquiries please contact
Miss Bridget Petersen/ Email: conference1@onscreenav.co.za or phone: +27 21 486 9111
Ms Deborah McTeer/Email: conference@onscreenav.co.za or +27 83 457 1975

How should we preserve old viruses?

12 August, 2015

I was reminded via Twitter by Vincent Racaniello, he of “virology blog” fame, of the problem of preserving stocks of old viruses.

Particularly, in his case, of stocks of a virus that may be eradicated in the wild in a few years, and then – according to him – will need to be destroyed.

Surely we need to at least preserve sequence information of these pathogens before we let them go into oblivion, the way variola and rinderpest viruses have already gone?

So I wrote this to him:

“Great that you have preserved these samples – but a longer-term strategy needs to be adopted, before completely irreplaceable specimens are lost forever, to you and to science in general.

tmv sedimI have the same problem: a colleagues’ samples of plant viruses; beautifully preserved in heat-sealed glass vials, dried over silica gel, dating back in some cases to the early 1960s. For that matter, I have about a thousand glass bottles of liquid plant virus samples at 4degC, dating back in some cases over 40 years – and still viable.

Surely there is a case to be made for preserving some of these viruses? Mining them for sequence in this metagenomic age is not that difficult; preserving their infectivity, however – another matter. Some of my plant viruses are probably bomb-proof; your poliovirus samples, on the other hand – probably slowly deteriorating as we watch.

A wider conversation is needed: I know of other archives, of old poxvirus collections for example, that will be lost forever in a few years. Should we not get an international effort going to log them, sequence them, preserve them?

I think so.

Want to join in?

Yours,

Ed”

If any of you out there have a similar problem, let’s hear from you – and maybe we can do something to at least preserve the genetic information in unique collections.

Anyone interested? A candidate virology textbook…

28 July, 2015

I would like to test the response to a Introduction to Virology ebook that I want to develop from my extant Web-based material, given that this is likely to disappear soon with our Web renewal project here at UCT.

Virus_Picture_Book_copy_iba

Download the Virus Picture Book excerpt here. And then please tell me what you think / whether you would buy one (projected price US$15 – 20)?  Ta!

Virology Africa 2015: consider yourselves notified!

7 November, 2014

Dear ViroBlogy and Virology News followers:

Anna-Lise Williamson and I plan to have another in our irregular series of “Virology Africa” conferences in November-December 2015, in Cape Town.

As previously, the conference will run over 3 days or so, possibly with associated workshops, and while the venue is not decided, we would like to base it at least partially in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

We also intend to cover the whole spectrum of virology, from human through animal to plant; clinical aspects and biotechnology.

We intend to make it as cheap as possible so that students can come. We will also not be inviting a slate of international speakers, as we have found that we always get quite an impressive slate without having to fund them fully.

It is also the intention to have a Plant Molecular Farming workshop – concentrating on plant-made vaccines – concurrently with the conference, in order to leverage existing bilateral travel grants with international partners. If anyone else has such grants that could be similarly leveraged, it would be greatly appreciated.

See you in Cape Town in 2015!

Ed + Anna-Lise

Packs of wild dogs spread Ebola after eating corpses!! Or…not, maybe?

13 October, 2014

Packs of wild dogs spread Ebola after eating corpses

The ever-evolving Ebola narrative is broaching into ludicrous territory, with reports now claiming that wild dogs are going around digging up the rotting remains of deceased victims and eating their flesh in the streets. Special Ebola graveyards, where the dead are being buried in haste and at shallow depths, are reportedly feasting grounds for these dogs, which officials say are capable of spreading the disease to humans.

The Daily Mail says Liberian villagers first came across the dogs while going about their daily routines. Right in the middle of busy streets, they said, hungry hounds were allegedly seen ripping through rotting corpses, to the shock of onlookers. After determining the source of the bodies, it was revealed that shallow graves were to blame.

Source: www.naturalnews.com

Stephen Korsman of the Division of Medical Virology at UCT just alerted me to this article, in some distress because they had misquoted him and used his comments out of context.  This is a rather wild, sensationalist and highly inaccurate piece from a fringe web site that seems to have blocked me from commenting, because of previous criticism.  So, I’ll just do it here.

They comment: "Logically speaking, it makes little sense that asymptomatic dogs are possible Ebola carriers while asymptomatic humans are not. There exists no credible science to substantiate this apparent inconsistency beyond the baseless claims made by government health officials."

Utter garbage: bats carry Nipah virus, SARS-CoV, Ebola, Marburg AND rabies essentially asymptomatically – and can transmit ALL of them to other mammals. So too can deer mice transmit Sin Nombre hantavirus in the south-western USA without showing symptoms.  Rodents transmit Lassa fever virus in West Africa every year, again without being symptomatic.  Mice can transmit various South American haemorrhagic fever viruses without obviously being sick. I wish they would get their facts straight: this is is very easily checked!

See on Scoop.itVirology News

Plant-made antibodies used as therapy for Ebola in humans: post-exposure prophylaxis goes green!

5 August, 2014
Ebola virus budding from an infected cell.  Courtesy of Russell Kightley Media

Ebola virus budding from an infected cell.
Courtesy of Russell Kightley Media

Yes, I know you fans of ViroBlogy like Ebola – and just coincidentally, I was desperately trying to finish a review*# on “Plant-based vaccines against viruses” against a backdrop of an out-of-control Ebola epidemic in West Africa, when three different people emailed me different links to news of use of a plant-made monoclonal antibody cocktail.  I immediately included it in my review – and I am publishing an excerpt here, for informations’ sake.  Enjoy!

* = which, despite their having commissioned it from me, the good folk at “Viruses” an unnamed journal decided it “…may not have substantial differences with the reviews you published recently” – and rejected it.  I shall have revenge#.  Oh, yes…B-) # = and I did: I sent the thing as it was to Virology Journal, and it was accepted with minimal changes.  And is now highly accessed B-)

Plantibodies against Ebola

The production of anti-Ebola virus antibodies has recently been explored in plants: this could yet become an important part of the arsenal to prevent disease in healthcare workers, given that at the time of writing an uncontrolled Ebola haemorrhagic fever outbreak was still raging in West Africa, and the use of experimental solutions was being suggested (Senthilingam, 2014). For example, use of a high-yielding geminivirus-based transient expression system in N benthamiana that is particularly suited to simultaneous expression of several proteins allowed expression of a MAb (6DB) known to protect animals from Ebola virus infection, at levels of 0.5 g/kg biomass (Chen et al., 2011). The same group also used the same vector system (described in detail here (Rybicki and Martin, 2014)) in lettuce to produce potentially therapeutic MAbs against both Ebola and West Nile viruses (Lai et al., 2012).

A more comprehensive investigation was reported recently, of both plant production of Mabs and post-exposure prophylaxis of Ebola virus infection in rhesus macaques (Olinger et al., 2012). Three Ebola-specific mouse-human chimaeric MAbs (h-13F6, c13C6, and c6D8; the latter two both neutralising) were produced in whole N benthamiana plants via agroinfilration of magnICON TMV-derived viral vectors. A mixture of the three MAbs – called MB-003 – given as a single dose of 16.7 mg/kg per Mab 1 hour post-infection followed by doses on days 4 and 8, protected 3 of 3 macaques from lethal challenge with 1 000 pfu of Ebola virus. The researchers subsequently showed significant protection with MB-003 treatment given 24 or 48 hours post-infection, with four of six monkeys testing surviving, compared to none in two controls. All surviving animals treated with MB-003 experienced insignificant if any viraemia, and negligible clinical symptoms compared to the control animals. A significant finding was that the plant-produced MAbs were three times as potent as the CHO cell-produced equivalents – a clear case of plant production leading to “biobetters”. A follow-up of this work investigated efficacy of treatment with MB-003 after confirmation of infection in rhesus macaques, “according to a diagnostic protocol for U.S. Food and Drug Administration Emergency Use Authorization” (Pettitt et al., 2013). In this experiment 43% of treated animals survived, whereas all controls tested here and previously with the same challenge protocol died from the infection.

In news from just prior to submission of this article, a report quoted as coming from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases states that two US healthcare workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia were treated with a cocktail of anti-Ebola Mabs called ZMapp – described as a successor to MB-003 – developed by Mapp Pharmaceutical of San Diego, and manufactured by Kentucky BioProcessing (Langreth et al., 2014). Despite being given up to nine days post-infection in one case, it appears to have been effective (Wilson and Dellorto, 2014).

A novel application of the same technology was also used to produce an Ebola immune complex (EIC) in N benthamiana, consisting of the Ebola envelope glycoprotein GP1 fused to the C-terminus of the heavy chain of the humanised 6D8 MAb, which binds a linear epitope on GP1. Geminivirus vector-mediated co-expression of the GP1-HC fusion and the 6D8 light chain produced assembled immunoglobulin, which was purified by protein G affinity chromatography. The resultant molecules bound the complement factor C1q, indicating immune complex formation. Subcutaneous immunisation of mice with purified EIC elicited high level anti-GP1 antibody production, comparable to use of GP1 VLPs (Phoolcharoen et al., 2011). This is the first published account of an Ebola virus candidate vaccine to be produced in plants.

References

Chen, Q., He, J., Phoolcharoen, W., Mason, H.S., 2011. Geminiviral vectors based on bean yellow dwarf virus for production of vaccine antigens and monoclonal antibodies in plants. Human vaccines 7, 331-338.

Lai, H., He, J., Engle, M., Diamond, M.S., Chen, Q., 2012. Robust production of virus-like particles and monoclonal antibodies with geminiviral replicon vectors in lettuce. Plant biotechnology journal 10, 95-104.

Langreth, R., Chen, C., Nash, J., Lauerman, J., 2014. Ebola Drug Made From Tobacco Plant Saves U.S. Aid Workers. Bloomberg.com.

Olinger, G.G., Jr., Pettitt, J., Kim, D., Working, C., Bohorov, O., Bratcher, B., Hiatt, E., Hume, S.D., Johnson, A.K., Morton, J., Pauly, M., Whaley, K.J., Lear, C.M., Biggins, J.E., Scully, C., Hensley, L., Zeitlin, L., 2012. Delayed treatment of Ebola virus infection with plant-derived monoclonal antibodies provides protection in rhesus macaques. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, 18030-18035.

Pettitt, J., Zeitlin, L., Kim do, H., Working, C., Johnson, J.C., Bohorov, O., Bratcher, B., Hiatt, E., Hume, S.D., Johnson, A.K., Morton, J., Pauly, M.H., Whaley, K.J., Ingram, M.F., Zovanyi, A., Heinrich, M., Piper, A., Zelko, J., Olinger, G.G., 2013. Therapeutic intervention of Ebola virus infection in rhesus macaques with the MB-003 monoclonal antibody cocktail. Science translational medicine 5, 199ra113.

Phoolcharoen, W., Bhoo, S.H., Lai, H., Ma, J., Arntzen, C.J., Chen, Q., Mason, H.S., 2011. Expression of an immunogenic Ebola immune complex in Nicotiana benthamiana. Plant biotechnology journal 9, 807-816.

Rybicki, E.P., Martin, D.P., 2014. Virus-Derived ssDNA Vectors for the Expression of Foreign Proteins in Plants. Current topics in microbiology and immunology 375, 19-45.

Senthilingam, M., 2014. Ebola outbreak: Is it time to test experimental vaccines? CNN.

Wilson, J., Dellorto, D., 2014. 9 questions about this new Ebola drug. CNN.

VIGS in fungi – using TMV?!

5 March, 2014

See on Scoop.itVirology News

RNA interference (RNAi) is a powerful approach for elucidating gene functions in a variety of organisms, including phytopathogenic fungi. In such fungi, RNAi has been induced by expressing hairpin RNAs delivered through plasmids, sequences integrated in fungal or plant genomes, or by RNAi generated in planta by a plant virus infection. All these approaches have some drawbacks ranging from instability of hairpin constructs in fungal cells to difficulties in preparing and handling transgenic plants to silence homologous sequences in fungi grown on these plants.

Here we show that RNAi can be expressed in the phytopathogenic fungus Colletotrichum acutatum (strain C71) by virus-induced gene silencing (VIGS) without a plant intermediate, but by using the direct infection of a recombinant virus vector based on the plant virus, tobacco mosaic virus (TMV). We provide evidence that a wild-type isolate of TMV is able to enter C71 cells grown in liquid medium, replicate, and persist therein. With a similar approach, a recombinant TMV vector carrying a gene for the ectopic expression of the green fluorescent protein (GFP) induced the stable silencing of the GFP in the C. acutatumtransformant line 10 expressing GFP derived from C71.

The TMV-based vector also enabled C. acutatum to transiently express exogenous GFP up to six subcultures and for at least 2 mo after infection, without the need to develop transformation technology. With these characteristics, we anticipate this approach will find wider application as a tool in functional genomics of filamentous fungi.

TMV graphic from Russell Kightley Media

Ed Rybicki‘s insight:

This is a nice paper for two main reasons: one, they were able to get VIGS – virus-induced gene silencing – working in a non-model fungus; two, they did it with TMV.

TMV! A plant virus in good standing, not previously shown to infect fungi productively, even if it has been studied in yeast as far as replication requirements go.

This is very interesting, not the least because it opens up the possibility that TMV NATURALLY infects some soil / leaf surface fungi.

Which could open up some investigation of just how the virus gets around, because it has always been touted as being only “mechanically” transmissible – even though we and others have shown it CAN be transmitted by aphids (reasonably inefficiently).

Mind you, Barbara von Wechmar and others in our lab showed in the 1980s that wheat stem and leaf rust fungi could transmit Brome mosaic virus and that Puccinia sorghi could transmit a potyvirus; they just did not have the techniques to look at whether or not it replicated too.

As far as my last post here is concerned, I think there is going to be a LOT of stuff coming out in the next few years on how “plant” and “insect” and “fungal” viruses are in fact considerably more promiscuous in choice of host(s) than we have hitherto been aware.

Now, just to prove what Barbara always said, that Tobacco necrosis virus is also a bacteriophage….

Thanks to Gary Foster (@Prof_GD_Foster) for pointing this out!

See on m.pnas.org

TRSV or not TRSV, that is the question. In bees, obviously.

25 February, 2014

I promised some time ago now to blog on the exciting topic of whether or not a plant virus is infecting honeybees – and here it is!  I was also contacted by the legendary Dr Adrian Gibbs about this paper, because he has read this blog, so I am including a commentary from him as well.

A little while ago, Ji Lian Li and co-workers published a paper entitled “Systemic Spread and Propagation of a Plant-Pathogenic Virus in European Honeybees, Apis mellifera” in ASM’s Open Access journal mBio.  They stated that:

“Pathogen host shifts represent a major source of new infectious diseases. Here we provide evidence that a pollen-borne plant virus, tobacco ringspot virus (TRSV), also replicates in honeybees and that the virus systemically invades and replicates in different body parts. In addition, the virus was detected inside the body of parasitic Varroa mites, which consume bee hemolymph, suggesting that Varroa mites may play a role in facilitating the spread of the virus in bee colonies. This study represents the first evidence that honeybees exposed to virus-contaminated pollen could also be infected and raises awareness of potential risks of new viral disease emergence due to host shift events. About 5% of known plant viruses are pollen transmitted, and these are potential sources of future host-jumping viruses. The findings from this study showcase the need for increased surveillance for potential host-jumping events as an integrated part of insect pollinator management programs”.

This paper has caused all sorts of excitement, as well as coming to some possibly misleading conclusions, and leading to quite a lot of uninformed speculation – so I think it is as well to explore quite carefully what they did.

Adrian first:

“This paper reports that tobacco ringspot nepovirus, a well-known virus of plants, replicates in honeybees.  TRSV, first identified nearly a century ago in the USA, has a wide range of plant hosts, and is spread in pollen and seed, and also by many unrelated vectors, not only root-feeding nematodes, like other nepoviruses, but also insects and mites.

This report tells us that TRSV virions have been isolated from bees, and that their gene sequences are closely similar to those of TRSV.  Convincingly, biochemical tests showed that there were replication intermediates of the TRSV genome in the bees, so the virus had not merely contaminated the bees when they fed on the honey and pollen of infected plants, but had seemingly multiplied in them.

However, there are several gaps in this story.  Surprisingly, it seems that no tests were done to show whether the virus isolated from bees infected known plant hosts of TRSV; perhaps this crucial evidence will be in the sequel.  Furthermore, the reported sequences of the virus represented only around 20% of the RNA1 of typical nepoviruses, and around 50% of their RNA2, so there is still the possibility of further genetic surprises when the genome sequence is completed.

Although TRSV is a well-known and long studied virus with many distinct symptom variants, there are relatively few of its gene sequences in Genbank.  When these are compared with those of the ‘bee TRSV’ it is obvious that more sequences will be required to sort out exactly where this virus clusters; differences in the homology patterns of the RNAs 1 and 2 suggest that recombination or reassortment is active among nepoviruses.

The gene sequencing revolution is, to paraphrase Pliny the Elder, revealing that in virology the only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

Me next:

I have the same reservations as Adrian: the TRSV sequence isolated from bees and from Varroa mites is only partial (~30%); thus, it is by no means certain that the whole genome is colinear with genomes of established TRSVs or of other nepoviruses, although they assume that it is – with some justification, possibly, as sequence identities of up to 96% were found in Genbank for the putative CP fragment sequence.  They could isolate particles: why, then, in this metagenomic and NGS age, could they not sequence the whole thing??

nepo fig1

Another reservation I have concerns their methodology.  First, while I was impressed that they did strand-specific PCR to show  both the presence of viral (+ strand) and of replicative form (- strand) RNA in bee and mite tissue (see their Figure above), and did in situ hybridisation to show (-) strand presence in mites, they did not do something very simple that could have shown the same thing, AND given them genome-length +/- strand RNA to play with.

I refer, of course, to dsRNA isolation, which is a very easy and extremely clean technique that can be used to get full-length dsRNAs for many (+) strand RNA viruses from plant or insect tissues.  Moreover, the simple fact of isolating dsRNA forms for a single-strand RNA virus is indicative that replication is occurring – and was used by our group as long ago as 1988 (C Williamson, PhD Thesis, UCT) to isolate full-length ~10 kb dsRNA for two aphid picorna-like viruses.

Scan 04 Jan 2014, 16.31-page8

This means they could have had clear and simple evidence via dsRNA extraction of ALL of the coinfecting viruses present – without all of the expense of total cDNA sequencing.  And sampled more hives….

Second, I have to echo Adrian: “…no tests were done to show whether the virus isolated from bees infected known plant hosts of TRSV”.  Why ever not?  I am afraid that if I were a referee, I would have insisted on this: they did enough other work, after all, that this would not exactly have been an onerous requirement!

And here’s another thing: the authors say, in their Discussion,

“The finding from this study illustrates the complexity of relationships between plant pathogens and the pollinating insects and emphasizes the need for surveillance for potential host-jumping events as an integrated part of insect pollinator conservation.”

Ummmm…no, it doesn’t.  This is overstating the significance of their results by an order of magnitude at least.  They have simply illustrated that ONE species of honeybee may be infectable by ONE species of plant virus, and that this is ASSOCIATED with “weak” colonies.  Moreover, while the presence of TRSV was apparently associated with four weak colonies (out of only ten surveyed), it is quite possible that this is simply the emergence of a commensal-type infection against a background of known bee viruses, and in particular Israeli acute paralysis virus which was found in the same colonies (and blogged on here).  The authors also seem to take it as a given that the “emergence” of TRSV into bees is a recent jump – when it may not be recent at all.  Their statement in the abstract that

“The tree topology indicated that the TRSVs from arthropod hosts shared a common ancestor with those from plant hosts and subsequently evolved as a distinct lineage after transkingdom host alteration”

is pretty much unsubstantiated, in the absence of any investigation of the lineage in plants or in other bee colonies.  Further, they say that

“This study represents a unique example of viruses with host ranges spanning both the plant and animal kingdoms. “

Ummmmm….it doesn’t really do that, either: there are a LOT of arboviruses, with quite a few of them infecting insects and plants.  Here, for example, is an illustration from my teaching material of why it is that I think that viruses of insects and plants are an underappreciated evolutionary link for later evolution of viruses that got into mammals.

Transkingdom viruses

I note that bunyaviruses, rhabdoviruses, reoviruses and (not shown) picorna-like viruses appear linked by the fact that insects have possibly the most diverse representatives of these families, which may indicate that these originated in insects.  Which were the first complex animals to crawl out of the oceans, to join…plants on dry land?  Which explains how plants link up with the far more closely related (in evolutionary terms) insects and vertebrates: plants and insects were alone together for a long, long time before things with spines lurched up out of the water to join them.  So were their viruses.

I also said the following in the material there:

“A complicating factor in the picture of viruses co-evolving with their hosts over millennia is the fact that viruses apparently can – and obviously do – make big jumps in hosts every now and then.  It seems obvious, for example, that arthropods are almost certainly the original source for a number of virus families infecting insects and mammals – such as the Flaviviridae – and probably also of viruses infecting insects and other animals and plants – such as the Rhabdoviridae and Reoviridae – as well (see also here).  For example, picornaviruses of mammals are very similar structurally and genetically to a large number of small RNA viruses of insects and to at least two plant viruses, and – as the insect viruses are more diverse than the mammalian viruses – probably had their origin in some insect that adapted to feed on mammals (or plants) at some distant point in evolutionary time.”

Now quite a lot of interest has been shown in this paper in the blogosphere, and there have been quite a few conclusions drawn from the results that I think are largely unsubstantiated.  For example, this Sci Am blog claims

“When HIV jumped from chimpanzees to humans sometime in the early 1900s, it crossed a gulf spanning several million years of evolution. But tobacco ringspot virus, scientists announced last week, has made a jump that defies credulity. It has crossed a yawning chasm ~1.6 billion years wide.”

Again, ummmm…in light of the discussion above, not necessarily!  I am of the opinion that picorna-like viruses were shared between insects and plants, and then between insects and animals, hundreds of millions of years ago.  And TRSV is a nepovirus – and nepoviruses look like nothing more or less than a picornavirus with a divided genome.

I think TRSV represents something coming back into insects.  And I think we will probably find a lot more of them.

Maize streak virus revisited: 25 years on

20 March, 2013
Maize streak virus: photo from 1978

Maize streak virus: photo by Robert G Milne in Cape Town from 1978

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.

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

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

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.

Geminivirus particle: characteristic doubled icosahedron containing a single ssDNA

Geminivirus particle: courtesy of Russell Kightley Media

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.

ViroBlogy: 2012 in review

1 February, 2013

So: thank you, anyone who clicked in, and regular visitors.  You make it worthwhile!!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 33,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 8 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.


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