potato spindle tuber viroidGenomes of non-defective viruses range in size from 2,400,000 bp of dsDNA (Pandoravirus salinus) to 1,759 bp of ssDNA (porcine circovirus). Are even smaller viral genomes possible? The subviral agents called viroids provide an answer to this question.

Viroids, the smallest known pathogens, are naked, circular, single-stranded RNA molecules that do not encode protein yet replicate autonomously when introduced into host plants. Potato spindle tuber viroid, discovered in 1971, is the prototype; 29 other viroids have since been discovered ranging in length from 120 to 475 nucleotides. Viroids only infect plants; some cause economically important diseases of crop plants, while others appear to be benign. Two examples of economically important viroids are coconut cadang-cadang viroid (which causes a lethal infection of coconut palms) and apple scar skin viroid (which causes an infection that results in visually unappealing apples).

The 30 known viroids have been classified in two families. Members of the Pospiviroidae, named for potato spindle tuber viroid, have a rod-like secondary structure with small single stranded regions, a central conserved region, and replicate in the nucleus (illustrated; click to enlarge; figure credit). The Avsunviroidae, named for avocado sunblotch viroid, have both rod-like and branched regions, but lack a central conserved region and replicate in chloroplasts. In contrast to the Pospiviroidae, the latter RNA molecules are functional ribozymes, and this activity is essential for replication.

There is no evidence that viroids encode proteins or mRNA. Unlike viruses, which are parasites of host translation machinery, viroids are parasites of cellular transcription proteins: they depend on cellular RNA polymerase for replication. Such polymerases normally recognize DNA templates, but can copy viroid RNAs.

In plants infected with members of the Pospiviroidae, viroid RNA is imported into the nucleus, and copied by plant DNA-dependent RNA polymerase II. The viroid is copied by a rolling circle mechanism that produces complementary linear, concatameric, RNAs. These are copied again to produce concatameric, linear molecules, which are cleaved by the host enzyme RNAse III. Their ends are joined by a host enzyme to form circles.

In plants infected with members of the Avsunviroidae, viroid RNA is imported into the chloroplast, and complementary concatameric RNAs are produced by chloroplast DNA-dependent RNA polymerase. Cleavage of these molecules is carried out by a ribozyme, an enzyme encoded in the viroid RNA.

After replication, viroid progeny exit the nucleus or chloroplast and move to adjacent cells through plasmodesmata, and can travel systemically via the phloem to infect other cells. Viroids enter the pollen and ovule, from where they are transmitted to the seed. When the seed germinates, the new plant becomes infected. Viroids can also be transmitted among plants by contaminated farm machinery and insects.

Symptoms of viroid infection in plants include stunting of growth, deformation of leaves and fruit, stem necrosis, and death. Because viroids do not produce mRNAs, it was first proposed that disease must be a consequence of viroid RNA binding to host proteins or nucleic acids.  The discovery of RNA silencing in plants lead to the hypothesis that small interfering RNAs derived from viroid RNAs guide silencing of host genes, leading to induction of disease. In support of this hypothesis, peach latent mosaic viroid small RNAs have been identified that silence chloroplast heat shock protein 90, which correlates with disease symptoms. The different disease patterns caused by viroids in their hosts might all have in common an origin in RNA silencing.

Our current understanding is that the disease-causing viroids were transferred from wild plants used for breeding modern crops. The widespread prevalence of these agents can be traced to the use of genetically identical plants (monoculture), worldwide distribution of breeding lines, and mechanical transmission by contaminated farm machinery. As a consequence, these unusual pathogens now occupy niches around the planet that never before were available to them.

The origin of viroids remains an enigma, but it has been proposed that they are relics from the RNA world, which is thought to have been populated only by non-coding RNA molecules that catalysed their own synthesis. Viroids have properties that make them candidates for survivors of the RNA world: small genome size (to avoid error catastrophe caused by error-prone replication), high G+C content (for greater thermodynamic stability), circular genomes (to avoid the need for mechanisms to prevent loss of information at the ends of linear genomes), no protein content, and the presence of a ribozyme, a fingerprint of the RNA world. Today’s viroids can no longer self-replicate, possibly having lost that function when they became parasites of plants. What began as a search for virus-like agents that cause disease in plants has lead to new insights into the evolution of life.

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On episode #319 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiVers review the outcomes of two recent phase 3 clinical trials of a quadrivalent dengue virus vaccine in Asia and Latin America.

You can find TWiV #319 at www.twiv.tv.

Poliovirus by Jason Roberts

Poliovirus by Jason Roberts

The polio eradication and endgame strategic plan announced by the World Health Organization in 2014 includes at least one dose of inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV). Since 1988, when WHO announced the polio eradication plan, it had relied exclusively on the use of oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV). The rationale for including a dose of IPV was to avoid outbreaks of vaccine-derived type 2 poliovirus. This serotype had been eradicated in 1999 and had consequently been removed from OPV. However IPV, which is injected intramuscularly and induces highly protective humoral immunity, is less effective in producing intestinal immunity than OPV. This property was underscored by the finding that wild poliovirus circulated in Israel during 2013, a country which had high coverage with IPV. Furthermore, in countries that use only IPV, over 90% of immunized children shed poliovirus after oral challenge. I have always viewed this shortcoming of IPV as problematic, in view of the recommendation of the World Health Organization to gradually shift from OPV to IPV. Even if the shift to IPV occurs after eradication of wild type polioviruses, vaccine-derived polioviruses will continue to circulate because they cannot be eradicated by IPV. My concerns are now mitigated by new results from a study in India which indicate that IPV can boost intestinal immunity in individuals who have already received OPV.

To assess the ability of IPV to boost mucosal immunity, 954 children in three age groups (6-11 months, 5 and 10 years) were immunized with IPV, bivalent OPV (bOPV, containing types 1 and 3 only), or no vaccine. Four weeks later all children were challenged with bOPV, and virus shedding in the feces was determined 0, 3, 7, and 14 days later. The results show that 8.8, 9.1, and 13.5% of children in the 6-11 month, 5-year and 10-year old groups shed type 1 poliovirus in feces, compared with 14.4, 24.1, and 52.4% in the control group. Immunization with IPV reduced fecal shedding of poliovirus types 1 (39-74%) and 3 (53-76%). The reduction of shedding was greater after immunization with IPV compared with bOPV.

This study shows that a dose of IPV is more effective than OPV at boosting intestinal immunity in children who have previously been immunized with OPV. Both IPV and OPV should be used together in the polio eradication program. WHO therefore recommends the following vaccine regimens:

  • In all countries using OPV only, at least 1 dose of type 2 IPV should be added to the schedule.
  • In polio-endemic countries and in countries with a high risk for wild poliovirus importation and spread: one OPV birth dose, followed by 3 OPV and at least 1 IPV doses.
  • In countries with high immunization coverage (90-95%) and low wild poliovirus importation risk: an IPV-OPV sequential schedule when VAPP is a concern, comprising 1-2 doses of IPV followed by 2 or mores doses of OPV.
  • In countries with both sustained high immunization coverage and low risk of wild poliovirus importation and transmission: an IPV only schedule.

Type 2 OPV will be gradually removed from the global immunization schedules. There have been no reported cases of type 3 poliovirus since November 2012. If this wild type virus is declared eradicated later this year, presumably WHO will recommend withdrawal of type 3 OPV and replacement with type 3 IPV.

All 342 confirmed cases of poliomyelitis in 2014 were caused by type 1 poliovirus in 9 countries, mainly Pakistan and Afghanistan. Given the social and political barriers to immunization, it will likely take many years to eradicate this serotype.

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On episode #318 of the science show This Week in Virology, the TWiV gang reviews ten fascinating, compelling, and riveting virology stories from 2014.

You can find TWiV #318 at www.twiv.tv.

TWiV 317: Brazil goes viral

28 December 2014

On episode #317 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent travels to Brazil and joins Eurico to speak with three four young virologists, Gustavo, Cintia, Tatiana, and Suellen, about their work and their prospects for careers in science.

You can find TWiV #317 at www.twiv.tv.

On episode #316 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, Rich and Kathy discuss how interleukin 10 modulation of Th17 helper cells contributes to alphavirus pathogenesis.

You can find TWiV #316 at www.twiv.tv.

Virus gifts

17 December 2014

Looking to give a virus-themed gift to someone this year? Here are some suggestions. As expected Ebola virus dominated. Where are the EV-D68 items?

An Ebola Texas shirt from VineFreshTees:

Ebola Texas

Virus tree ornaments made of wood at BuenoMarket:

tree viruses

Viral mugs at Thefty:

viral mug

Artologica always has fabulous microbe art, including this swine flu watercolor:

swine flu

A favorite last year, Screenology, also has an Ebola virus T shirt:

Ebola virus t shirt

Another favorite from last year, Trilobite Glassworks, went the Ebola virus route with this dish; there is also a brooch:

Ebola dish

For wrapping your gifts, try The Wrap Up Project, where you will find blue, red, or green paper covered with viruses. Proceeds go to St. Mungo’s which provides assistance for homeless people in the United Kingdom.

virus wrap

This is just a small selection of what is out there – check out my Microbe art page for much more. Making beautiful art depicting viruses, bacteria, and other life forms is a great way to make everyone aware of the beauty of science. Please support these very special artists.

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The American Society for Virology was founded in 1981 to promote the exchange of information and stimulate discussion and collaboration among scientists active in all aspects of virology. These goals are achieved in part by organizing an annual meeting that brings together virologists from diverse fields to discuss their work.

As the current President of the American Society for Virology it is my honor to select the speakers for the morning symposia at the annual meeting. Below are the sessions that I have organized and the speakers that I have selected. Note the titles of the different sessions: Listeners of the science show This Week in Virology should recognize them! In addition to the plenary sessions there are hundreds of other talks, poster sessions, and much more.

The 2015 annual meeting of ASV will be held at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada. It should be a terrific meeting. All virologists are encouraged to attend; registration is now open. I hope to see you there next summer!

Saturday 7/11
Keynote Address – Joan Steitz, Yale University

Sunday 7/12
An inordinate fondness for viruses
Curtis Suttle, University of British Columbia
Christian Drosten, University of Bonn
XJ Meng, Virginia Tech
Steve Wilhelm, University of Tennessee

Monday 7/13
The kind that make you sick
Kanta Subbarao, NIAID, NIH
Theodora Hatziannou, Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Institute
Chioma Okeoma, University of Iowa
Heinz Feldmann, NIAID, NIH

Tuesday 7/14
Bucket of bolts
Britt Glaunsinger, University of California, Berkeley
Paula Traktman, Medical College of Wisconsin
Ileana Cristea, Princeton University
Leslie Parent, Penn State
James (Zhijian) Chen, UT Southwestern Medical Center

Wednesday 7/15
Virocentricity
Eugene Koonin, NCBI, NIH
Mart Krupovic, Institut Pasteur
Kenneth Stedman, Portland State University
Susana Lopez Charreton, UNAM, Cuernavaca
Karen Mossman, McMaster University

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On episode #315 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, Rich and Kathy discuss the association of a virus with sea star melting disease, and the finding of a phycodnavirus in the oropharynx of humans with altered cognitive functions.

You can find TWiV #315 at www.twiv.tv.

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influenza virusHuman influenza viruses replicate almost exclusively in the respiratory tract, yet infected individuals may also have gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. In mice, intestinal injury occurs in the absence of viral replication, and is a consequence of viral depletion of the gut microbiota.

Intranasal inoculation of mice with the PR8 strain of influenza virus leads to injury of both the lung and the intestinal tract, the latter accompanied by mild diarrhea. While influenza virus clearly replicates in the lung of infected mice, no replication was observed in the intestinal tract. Therefore injury of the gut takes place in the absence of viral replication.

Replication of influenza virus in the lung of mice was associated with alteration in the populations of bacteria in the intestine. The numbers of segmented filamentous bacteria (SFB) and Lactobacillus/Lactococcus decreased, while numbers of Enterobacteriaceae increased, including E. coli. Depletion of gut bacteria by antibiotic treatment had no effect on virus-induced lung injury, but protected the intestine from damage. Transferring Enterobacteriaceae from virus-infected mice to uninfected animals lead to intestinal injury, as did inoculating mice intragastrically with E. coli.

To understand why influenza virus infection in the lung can alter the gut microbiota, the authors examined immune cells in the gut. They found that Mice lacking the cytokine IL-17A, which is produced by Th17 helper T cells, did not develop intestinal injury after influenza virus infection. However these animals did develop lung injury.

Th17 cells are a type of helper T cells (others include Th1 and Th2 helper T cells) that are important for microbial defenses at epithelial barriers. They achieve this function in part by producing cytokines, including IL-17A. Th17 cells appear to play a role in intestinal injury caused by influenza virus infection of the lung. The number of Th17 cells in the intestine of mice increased after influenza virus infection, but not in the liver or kidney. In addition, giving mice antibody to IL-17A reduced intestinal injury.

There is a relationship between the intestinal microbiome and Th17 cells. In mice treated with antibiotics, there was no increase in the number of Th17 cells in the intestine following influenza virus infection. When gut bacteria from influenza virus-infected mice were transferred into uninfected animals, IL-17A levels increased. This effect was not observed if recipient animals were treated with antibiotics.

A key question is how influenza virus infection in the lung affects the gut microbiota. The chemokine CCL25, produced by intestinal epithelial cells, attracts lymphocytes from the lung to the gut. Production of CCL25 in the intestine increased in influenza virus infected mice, and treating mice with an antibody to this cytokine reduced intestinal injury and blocked the changes in the gut microbiome.

The helper T lymphocytes that are recruited to the intestine by the CCL25 chemokine produce the chemokine receptor called CCR9. These CCR9 positive Th cells increased in number in the lung and intestine of influenza virus infected mice. When helper T cells from virus infected mice were transferred into uninfected animals, they homed to the lung; after virus infection, they were also found in the intestine.

How do CCR9 positive Th cells from the lung influence the gut microbiota? The culprit appears to be interferon gamma, produced by the lung derived Th cells. In mice lacking interferon gamma, virus infection leads to reduced intestinal injury and normal levels of IL-17A. The lung derived CCR9 positive Th cells are responsible for increased numbers of Th17 cells in the gut through the cytokine IL-15.

These results show that influenza virus infection of the lung leads to production of CCR9 positive Th cells, which migrate to the gut. These cells produce interferon gamma, which alters the gut microbiome. Numbers of Th17 cells in the gut increase, leading to intestinal injury. The altered gut microbiome also stimulates IL-15 production which in turn increases Th17 cell numbers.

It has been proposed that all mucosal surfaces are linked by a common, interconnected mucosal immune system. The results presented in this study are consistent with communication between the lung and gut mucosa. Other examples of a common mucosal immune system include the prevention of asthma in mice by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori in the stomach, and vaginal protection against herpes simplex virus type 2 infection conferred by intransal immunization.

Do these results explain the gastrointestinal symptoms that may accompany influenza in humans? The answer is not clear, because influenza PR8 infection of mice is a highly artificial model of infection. It should be possible to sample human intestinal contents and determine if alterations observed in mice in the gut microbiome, Th17 cells, and interferon gamma production are also observed during influenza infection of the lung.

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