Posted November 26, 2014
Kansas Researchers Protect Wheat by Preventing Virus Replication
Viruses result in yield loss. For example, yield loss due to wheat streak mosaic virus equaled more than 4.25 million bushels in the 2013 Kansas wheat crop alone, adding up to a $32.6 million economic impact. Now, however, researchers funded by the Kansas Wheat Commission have developed a way to stop four of the hardest hitting wheat viruses – Wheat streak mosaic virus, Triticum mosaic virus, Soilbourne mosaic virus and Barley yellow dwarf virus – literally in their reproductive tracks.
These viruses are like parasites; they need a host. Some even need to hijack part of that host’s own genes to replicate and survive. Researchers can now halt this replication process, meaning the virus is not able to spread and damage the wheat plant.
, USDA Agricultural Research Service molecular biologist based at Kansas State University, has teamed up with Dr. Harold Trick, Kansas State University plant pathology professor, to find exactly what parts of the wheat plant these four viruses commandeer to replicate and how to stop them before the virus is activated. (Watch KSRE Video interview on this research.)
Understanding the Virus-Cell Interaction
The team started by identifying the exact genes that could help the wheat plant identify and destroy the virus threat. Fellers explained that this acted like a Most Wanted poster that the plant could refer each potential threat to and attack when detected. While effective, this process could only address a single virus at a time.
Trick stated, “One transgene protects against four different economically impactful viruses.”
Protection Without Yield Loss
With a genome five times as complex as humans, the wheat plant has redundancies built into its genetics. Trick emphasized that there was no phenotypic penalty, meaning no loss in yield or negative effect to the plant’s function even though wheat genes are shut down. In other words, the team can shut down sales of the viruses’ favorite Budweiser, but keep the Coors stands open for true Royals fans.
For all of these processes, she said the resistance is stable through the fifth generation, which has never been accomplished before in wheat. She further explained that because of the redundancies in the wheat plant, a transgene is sometimes silenced in the traditional breeding cycle since the wheat plant is so good at eliminating copies. That is not the case with these two factors. In fact, the process is so effective that Kansas State University filed a patent for it.
Advancing the Science Even Further
Now that the two wheat plant components have been identified, however, the research team explained they can use non-genetically modified methods to accomplish the same virus resistance. Using mutagenesis, the team can look for a mutated version of these factors, like one that that will not recognize counterfeit ball caps or cannot sell beer. Or, using an even more efficient non-genetically modified approach called gene editing, they can make very specific, microscopic mutations just to those factors, like going into the instructions for beer vendors and changing a “can sell beer” to “cannot sell beer.”
No matter the method, the discovery of how to prevent yield loss from viral infection for four major wheat viruses could not have happened without the support of their ultimate benefactors – Kansas wheat farmers.
“This type of research is difficult to fund on a national level,” Trick said. “Without the support of the Kansas Wheat Commission, we could not do this research. Period.”
By Julia Debes