December 4, 2022

Taylor Daily Press

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'If they had hired someone else, the virus would never have been noticed so quickly'

‘If they had hired someone else, the virus would never have been noticed so quickly’

Ricardo Thomas statue

One day, a PhD student came to us with data from sand rockets in which something crazy happened. Sand rockets, aka Arabidopsis thaliana, are small, green plants with white flowers, often described as weeds. This is a typical plant for scientists. What mice are to medical researchers, cress is to botanists.

She contacted us, as the Department of Virology at Wageningen University, because she suspected it was a virus. This turned out to be the case, even a previously unnoticed virus. Shortly after this discovery, I joined another research group in Wageningen for doctoral research on an entirely different topic, the tiny nematodes in plant roots. Every now and then we would talk about the virus, because little by little it became known.

After I got my PhD at Wageningen I found a job at Utrecht University. I began to research the effects of various stressful situations, such as drought, high temperatures, and floods, on plants. Useful information for farmers who grow crops. But even before my first day on the job, they warned me of a strange appearance in the data: in samples of cress, sometimes more than 90 percent of the unknown RNA was found. RNA can be viewed as a “translation step” between plant DNA and the proteins produced. Therefore, in our data set, the vast majority of RNA in some samples did not come from the plant. But what was it then?

I immediately thought of the previous problems we had at Wageningen. Maybe it was the same new virus? Since I’ve come across a similar dataset before, I made the link right away. In fact it turned out to be so. Coincidentally, if they had hired someone else, the virus would not have been detected so quickly. The original research plan faded into the background for a while and focused mainly on the new discovery.

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The newly discovered virus is an RNA virus, just like Corona, which is why our RNA datasets have become so contaminated. The virus can remain undetected for a long time, because you cannot distinguish infected and uninfected plants with the naked eye. I heard from several other researchers that they recognized the problem. But they simply assumed that the data set was corrupt or failed. Nothing has been released about this phenomenon before.

Botanist Ava Verhoeven during her research.  Laura Dijquizen's photo

Botanist Ava Verhoeven during her research.Laura Dijquizen’s photo

This also became apparent when I posted the discovery on Twitter. I received several responses from others who recognized the problem. The researchers also came to me after the presentations, many researchers had come across the virus at one time or another. It has spread around the world for years in laboratories and in the wild.

Creating an RNA dataset costs a huge amount of money, time and energy. So you don’t want 90% of well-cared-for plants to have viruses, even if the virus seems harmless. This is why a type of test was developed with which you can tell if a plant is infected, comparable to PCR tests for corona. search It was just published, but in my group in Utrecht they already test all the factories according to the standards. Hopefully, researchers around the world will soon be looking for this virus.

Ava Verhoeven is a botanist at Utrecht University. Here you investigate the impact of stressful situations on the love of Rashad.