K-State researchers progress in fight against wheat virus

by Laura Lloyd
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MANHATTAN, KAS. — Researchers at Kansas State University have succeeded in halting replication of four viruses that infect wheat plants in a similar way: wheat streak mosaic, triticum mosaic virus, soil-bourne mosaic virus and barley yellow dwarf virus.

Stopping the replication process means these viruses will be unable to spread and damage wheat plants, said the Kansas Wheat Commission, a funder of the research.

One of the next steps will be to duplicate the results in hard red winter wheat grown in Kansas. Researchers said there are non-genetically modified methods to create the virus resistance in winter wheat, such as mutagenesis or gene editing. Genetically modifying hard red winter wheat also is an option, although that would involve a large investment of time and money before commercialization would be possible. So far, wheat remains the major food crop in the United States that has not yet been genetically modified.

The primary benefit of eliminating the spread of certain viruses affecting wheat is increased yields, which translates to a larger economic return for producers.

“Yield loss due to wheat streak mosaic virus equaled more than 4,250,000 bus in the 2013 Kansas wheat crop alone, adding up to a $32,600,000 economic impact,” the Kansas Wheat Commission said.

The K.S.U. research team of John Fellers, a U.S. Department of Agriculture molecular biologist, and Harold Trick, a K.S.U. plant pathology professor, first discovered how the four targeted plant viruses infect wheat. They determined that all four viruses invade wheat plants with the help of a protein cap “disguise” that encourages part of the plant’s own reproductive system to help the virus multiply itself. The selected viruses each attempt to take over the same two cell components in wheat, identified as elF4E-2 and elF4G, Dr. Trick said.

“Trick and Fellers genetically shut down those genes,” said the Kansas Wheat Commission, and the viruses die because they cannot replicate. Dr. Trick said the process of stopping replication of the selected wheat viruses was without “phenotypic penalty” — no loss in yield or negative effect to the plant.

By exposing wheat plants to the selected viruses in growth chambers, resistance has been shown to be stable through the fifth generation, never before accomplished in wheat. The Kansas Wheat Commission said K.S.U. has filed for a patent on their process of eliminating replication in the viruses.
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