Avoiding virus dangers in 'domesticating' wild plants for biofuel use

Feb 15, 2013

In our ongoing quest for alternative energy sources, researchers are looking more to plants that grow in the wild for use in biofuels, plants such as switchgrass.

However, attempts to "domesticate" wild-growing plants have a downside, as it could make the plants more susceptible to any number of plant .

In a presentation at this year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Michigan State University plant biologist Carolyn Malmstrom said that when we start combining the qualities of different types of plants into one, there can be unanticipated results.

"Most wild plants are perennials, while most of our agriculture crops are annuals," Malmstrom said. "Sometimes when you mix the properties of the two, unexpected things can happen."

For example, annual domestic plants are made to grow quickly. "In agriculture we select more for growth," she said. "There is a reduced need for the plants to defend themselves because we have taken care of that."

If pest control measures aren't taken, these annual plants can serve as "amplifiers," producing lots of viruses and insects to move the viruses around.

In contrast, in nature grow slower, but are usually better equipped to fight off invading viruses. When wild-growing perennials do get infected they can serve as reservoirs for viruses, Malmstrom said, "a place where viruses can hang out a long time."

In the domestication of for bioenergy, long-lived plants are being selected for fast growth like annuals. "Now you have a plant that could be a long-term reservoir, but it also happens to be faster growing and can serve as an amplifier for viruses. This all-in-one combination could increase virus pressure in crop areas unless mitigated."

Malmstrom said that ecology and the study of viral interactions between wild-growing plants and agricultural crops is an expanding field. In the last 15 years, disease ecology has really come to the fore as a basic science.

Most of what is known about plant viruses comes from studies of crops. To understand the complete ecology of viruses, researchers are now studying these tiny organisms in nature, too. "The mysteries of how plant viruses can play a role in ecosystem properties and processes in natural ecosystems are emerging more slowly," Malmstrom said.

Malmstrom said it's important to catch-up in our understanding of viral ecology, as there are any number of societal issues that need to be addressed in this area.

"Society wants us to be able to answer questions such as whether viruses can be used in agricultural terrorism, how to recognize a novel virus, and what happens if a virus is genetically modified and then let loose?"

Explore further: The origin of the language of life

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Major breakthrough on how viruses infect plants

Jul 14, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- CSIRO plant scientists have shed light on a problem that has puzzled researchers since the first virus was discovered in 1892 – how exactly do they cause disease?

Whitefly spreads emerging plant viruses

Jan 18, 2007

A tiny whitefly is responsible for spreading a group of plant viruses that cause devastating disease on food, fiber, and ornamental crops, say plant pathologists with The American Phytopathological Society (APS).

Plant virus spreads by making life easy for crop pests

Oct 30, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- In 752, Japanese Empress Koken wrote a short poem about the summertime yellowing of a field in what is thought to be the first account of a viral plant disease. More than 1,250 years later, ...

People also have antiviral 'plant defences'

Sep 27, 2010

In addition to known antiviral agents such as antibodies and interferons, people also seem to have a similar immune system to that previously identified in plants. This is the result of research carried out by Esther Schnettler ...

Annuals converted into perennials

Nov 10, 2008

Scientists from VIB at Ghent University, Belgium, have succeeded in converting annual plants into perennials. They discovered that the deactivation of two genes in annuals led to the formation of structures that converted ...

Recommended for you

The origin of the language of life

Dec 19, 2014

The genetic code is the universal language of life. It describes how information is encoded in the genetic material and is the same for all organisms from simple bacteria to animals to humans. However, the ...

Quest to unravel mysteries of our gene network

Dec 18, 2014

There are roughly 27,000 genes in the human body, all but a relative few of them connected through an intricate and complex network that plays a dominant role in shaping our physiological structure and functions.

EU court clears stem cell patenting

Dec 18, 2014

A human egg used to produce stem cells but unable to develop into a viable embryo can be patented, the European Court of Justice ruled on Thursday.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.