Archive for the ‘plant viruses’ Category

“New Virus Breaks The Rules Of Infection”! No – no, it doesn’t

31 August, 2016

I was prompted to this post by the breathless and much-hyped response to the discovery – the repeated discovery should I say; there was an earlier one that gets glossed over – of a multicomponent flavirus-like virus, this time in mosquitoes.

The actual report was published here: it is a well-done study, describing

“…a genetically distinct, segmented virus isolated from mosquitoes that also exhibits homology to viruses in the familyFlaviviridae and that appears to be multicomponent …, with each genome segment separately packaged into virions”

The authors say

“Although multicomponent genomes are relatively common among RNA viruses that infect plants and fungi, this method of genome organization has not previously been seen in animal viruses [my emphasis]

…which is why there’s all the hype, of course: claiming the virus “…breaks the rules of infection” is simply incorrect, because it is in fact related to very well characterised single-component ssRNA+ viruses of arthropods and mammals – flaviviruses – and infects its mosquito host exactly as these do, except with its genome in separate particles. Which makes it similar to quite a few plant viruses, several of which are, incidentally, probably evolutionarily related to viruses infecting insects – but more later.

Thus, a claim like “…a new study published Thursday is making researchers rethink how some viruses could infect animals” is simply hype.  But it is a sort of hype familiar to plant virologists, who after all showed that multicomponent viruses (=viruses with multipartite genomes packaged in separate particles) existed over 50 years ago – and who also showed that gene silencing was a factor in plant resistance to viruses long before their better-funded animal-researching colleagues got in on the act, but that is another story.

The way in which multicomponency was discovered with plant viruses is interesting: it relied on the fact that plants can respond with local lesions – qualitatively the same as plaques in bacterial or animal cell lawns – to mechanical infection, and that this can be used an an accurate assay of virus titre, as for phages or animal viruses (see here).  It became evident, though, that certain plant viruses produced significantly steeper lesion vs dilution curves than were expected from “one-hit” kinetics, where infection with a single virus particle sufficed to cause a lesion.

This is best shown by a plot like the one below, modified from REF Matthews’ Virology, 3rd Edn, attributed to Lous van Vloten-Doting from 1968.  This shows the curves obtained from accurate and painstaking local lesion assays with the single-component Tobacco necrosis virus (TNV), and the multicomponent Alfalfa mosaic virus (AMV): both are ssRNA+ and have isometric particles, but TNV has a single-component genome, and AMV a tripartite genome packaged in 3 particles.


The insect virus investigators did much the same thing:

“We used a similar approach to assay the nature of segment packaging for GCXV using cell culture plaques instead of leaf lesions. The dose-response curve for GCXV differed significantly from expectations for a single-component virus (i.e., the number of plaques decreased more quickly than expected with dilution of the inoculant)…we used our dose-response curve to estimate the presence of 3.27 ± 0.37 distinct GCXV particles required for plaque formation”

…but with the addition of rapid sequencing techniques not available in 1968, to show that indeed, the different segments were 5 distinct pieces of ssRNA, 3 mono- and 2 tricistronic (=3 ORFs), with the 2 largest monocistronic pieces being similar to flavivirus NSPs and the 3 smallest not encoding anything similar to sequences in the databases.  Four RNAs were essential for infectivity, while the smallest appeared dispensable.  Particles formed during infection of cultured cells were enveloped and 30-35 nm in diameter, considerably smaller than flavivirus virions.

This is a very interesting finding, although not unique: similar viruses were previously found in ticks in 2014, when the authors claimed that:

“To our knowledge, JMTV is the first example of a segmented RNA virus with a genome derived in part from unsegmented [flavi]viral ancestors

They were also wrong: there are a number of viruses for which this could have been said years ago, like the picornavirus superfamily-related comoviruses of plants. These have two-component genomes which both encode polyproteins, one with non-structural and the other with structural ORFs.  In fact, an evolutionary precursor to such viruses could be the more closely picornavirus-related dicistroviruses of insects, which have a classic picornavirus precursor polyprotein ORF split into two, with the structural protein ORF at the 3′ end and the regulatory or non-structural polyprotein at the 5′ end.

I got into this because it irked me mildly that such a fuss was being made of a second group of animal-infecting multicomponent ssRNA viruses, when the multicomponent plant virus precedent and history was VERY well established – but then got more interested when speculation started about what advantage multicomponency could confer on a virus.

I have thought for years that people discussing this generally have it backwards: it’s not that having a divided genome in separate particles offers advantage(s), it’s that it is not a DISadvantage in some circumstances – and particularly where there is no selection against the state.

A reason that multicomponency HAS been seen quite frequently with plant viruses could be that mechanically-transmitted viruses can reach VERY high concentrations in infected plants, and even obligately vector-transmitted viruses (eg: the bicomponent ssDNA begomoviruses, multicomponent ssDNA nanoviruses) reach quite high concentrations in the phloem tissue to and from which they are transmitted, compared to viruses in vertebrates.

This is also true for viruses of arthropods compared to vertebrate viruses: dicistroviruses in aphids can reach concentrations that are comparable to those of viruses like TMV in plants, to the point that aphids inject enough virus into plants that our lab originally mistook Rhopalosiphum padi virus for a plant virus. Moreover, plant virus virions often aggregate into quasi-crystalline arrays which can be hard to separate and which are even visible inside insect vectors, thus virtually guaranteeing that >1 virion will be present in any inoculum, even if significantly diluted.

This is most definitely NOT the case for vertebrate viruses, even where the same virus infects both an arthropod and a vertebrate host: the titre in the latter is guaranteed to be orders of magnitude lower, largely due to a more sophisticated immune system keeping viraemia in check. Thus, high inoculum concentrations relative to vertebrate viruses, and a tendency to aggregate, mean there is no DISadvantage inherent in multicomponency.

Having said this, there may be advantages to having a multicomponent genome: one such is presented in a recent article by Sicard et al. (2013), (thanks, @LauringLab and @DiagnosticChick!) in a study of the ssDNA nanovirus Faba bean necrotic stunt virus (FBNSV), which has an 8-component genome of ~1 kb/segment, encapsidated in 8 virions. They proposed:

“…that the differential control of gene/segment copy number may represent an unforeseen benefit for multipartite viruses, which may compensate for the extra costs induced by the low-frequency segments”

Thus, multicomponent viruses may achieve the sorts of gene dosage control only possible in viruses with larger genomes, by virtue of having multiple genome components rather than control elements which add genomic bulk.

Another possible advantage that I recall being touted by plant virological luminaries is the ease of reassortment compared to recombination: this is exemplified by the reo- and orthomyxoviruses, albeit in vertebrates, where they are constrained by having to have all genome components in the same capsid to guarantee infectivity.

I think Vincent Racaniello is correct in the breathless article I quoted in opening, where he is quoted as saying

“There’s so much we don’t know about viruses…We should always expect the unexpected.”

Absolutely. And I think it’s a safe bet that a LOT more multicomponent viruses will be found in arthropods – and even in some vertebrates, to which they will have been transmitted by arthropods. Because that’s the link between many of these viruses: an evolutionary history that involves plants and arthropods, or arthropods and other animals, at an early stage of life on land. Because that’s all there was for advanced eukaryotes, early on: primitive vascular plants, insects that preyed on them and on each other, and protists.

The Internet Journal of Comprehensive Virology

15 July, 2016


See Home Page for details

Testing out a textbook on Virology

5 December, 2015

Like my recent books on History of Viruses and Influenza, I’m constructing an ebook Introduction to Virology textbook – and I’d like people’s opinions.

It’s going to look something like this:



It will be based on my web pages that were so cruelly destroyed, but will be PROFUSELY illustrated, using all of the bells and whistles built into the iBooks Author app, with liberal use of Russell Kightley’s very excellent virus picture library.

And I will sell it for US$20 or less.

Tell me what you think of the taster – and there will be more.

So that’s what you lot like, is it?

21 October, 2015


New header graphic: something old, something new; something borrowed – and something blue

8 September, 2015

That’s right: a new header graphic after lo, these many years.

Something old: Maize streak virus, in all its geminate glory, on the left. Picture taken by RG (Bob) Milne in Cape Town, 1978.

Something new: unidentified phycodnaviruses, middle right. Picture by Hendrik Els, 2015.

Something borrowed: T4-like phage particles, right. Picture by Mohammed Jaffer, 2005.

Something blue: Bluetongue orbivirus particles, centre left. Picture by Ayesha Mohamed, 2015.

Virology Africa 2015: Update and Registration

19 August, 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.


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.


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


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 – 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 –

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: or phone: +27 21 486 9111
Ms Deborah McTeer/Email: or +27 83 457 1975

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.


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!

Crystallising the tobacco mosaic virus

6 July, 2015

We saw last week how sulphur dioxide released from the Laki fissure system accounted for many deaths due to poisoning. We will stay with poisons this week as well, for virus has its roots in the Latin term for “poison”

Sourced through from:

Nice article – and from a newspaper in India, no less!  Adds to the history of virology in a very accessible way.

See on Scoop.itVirology News

Maize streak virus: the early history

30 March, 2015

The history of maize streak virus research is generally taken as starting in 1901, with the publication of the

The cover of the "Fuller Report"

The cover of the “Fuller Report”

by “Claude Fuller, Entomologist”. However, in the Report he does make reference to articles in the “Agricultural Journal” for August 3rd and 31st, 1900, and quotes personal sources as having noticed the disease of “mealie variegation” as early as the 1870s.  He comments that:

“…mealie growers…have been acquainted with variegated mealies…for at least 20 years…”, and “…Thomas Kirkman…has known the disorder for 30 years past…”.

His conclusions, although carefully arrived at, were very wrong. Fuller claimed the disease was due to soil deficiency or a “chemical enzyme” in soils, and could be combatted by intensive cultivation and “chemical manures”. However, his carefully-written account is still of great historical interest, and the observations are valuable as they are objective accounts of a skilled scientist.  The records of streaked grasses in particular are useful, as we still collect such samples to this day.  Fuller was later sadly a victim of one the first traffic accidents in what was then Lourenco Marques in Mozambique.

Streak symptoms in a maize leaf

The disease – now known as maize streak disease (MSD) – occurs only in Africa and adjacent Indian Ocean islands, where it is one of the worst occurring in maize.  The causal agent was discovered to be a virus by HH Storey in 1932, who termed it maize streak virus (MSV). The virus was found to be obligately transmitted by the leafhopper Cicadulina mbila, also by Storey, in 1928. In 1978, MSV was designated the type virus of the newly described group taxon Geminivirus.

Early studies indicated that there were several distinctly different African streak viruses adapted to different host ranges (Storey & McClean, 1930; McClean, 1947). These studies were based on the transmission of virus isolates between different host species and symptomatology.

In a subsequent study of streak virus transmission between maize, sugarcane, and Panicum maximum, the relatively new technique of immunodiffusion was employed, using antiserum to the maize isolate. From the results it was concluded that the maize, sugarcane, and Panicum isolates were strains of the same virus, MSV (Bock et al., 1974). The maize isolate was given as the type strain. The virus was only properly physically characterised in 1974, when the characteristic geminate or doubled particles were first seen by electron microscopy, and only found to be a single-stranded circular DNA virus in 1977 (Harrison et al., 1977).

Maize streak virus: photo from Robert G Milne in 1978

Maize streak virus: photo from Robert G Milne in 1978

The first isolates of MSV were sequenced in 1984 (Kenya, S Howell, 1984; Nigeria, P Mullineaux et al., 1984), and the virus was found to have a single component of single-stranded circular DNA (sscDNA), and to be about 2700 bases in size. The two isolates were about 98% identical in sequence. The second team took delight in noting that the first sequence was in fact of the complementary and not the virion strand.

A major advance in the field occurred in 1987, when Nigel Grimsley et al. showed that a tandem dimer clone of MSV-N in an Agrobacterium tumefaciens Ti plasmid-derived cloning vector, was infectious when the bacterium was injected into maize seedlings. Subsequently, Sondra Lazarowitz (1988) obtained the sequence of an infectious clone of a South African isolate (from Potchefstroom) – MSV-SA – and showed that it also shared about 98% identity with the first two sequences.

Since the early days other transmission tests and more sophisticated serological assays were performed on a wide range of streak isolates from different hosts and locales, and it was claimed that all forms of streak disease in the Gramineae in Africa were caused by strains of the same virus, MSV. This view changed as more and more viruses were characterised, however, and it became obvious that there were distinctly separate groupings of viruses that constituted different species: these were sugarcane streak viruses (SSV, see Hughes et al., 1993), the panicum streak viruses (PanSV, see Briddon et al., 1992), and the maize streak viruses. Together these viruses constituted an African streak virus group (see Hughes et al., 1992; Rybicki and Hughes, 1990), distinct from an Australasian striate mosaic virus group, and other more distantly related viruses (see here for the state of the art in 1997).  These studies together with a later one by Rybicki et al. in 1998 also pointed up the utility of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for amplification, detection and subsequent sequencing of DNA from diverse mastreviruses.

A more modern and comprehensive account can also be found here, in a recent review written for Molecular Plant Pathology.

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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