Thursday, July 10, 2008

UA research may lead to disease shield for plants

[Source: ALAN FISCHER, Tucson Citizen] - A mutant viral protein developed by University of Arizona researchers can cause viruses to self-destruct.

The discovery may protect plants from disease, but potential human applications are a long way off, said Bentley A. Fane, with UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

"I want to start investigating plant applications in the next year or so," Fane said. "You could introduce one of these rogue proteins into a plant genome. When the virus goes to infect, it can't devastate a crop."

This could benefit crops within the next 10 years if it works, he said.

The research by Fane, a member of the UA BIO5 Institute, and James Cherwa, a UA graduate student in microbiology, targets a scaffolding protein that plays a critical role in the assembly of the virus, Fane said.

Viruses assemble in a way similar to the way skyscrapers are built, he said. Scaffolding proteins are erected, the virus is assembled and the scaffolding proteins come down, he said.

"We're just making a defective scaffolding," he said. "The whole structure comes tumbling down before it's built."

A scaffolding protein is influenced by the engineered mutant protein, he said.

"The mutant scaffolding protein we made supports the early stages of building the virus. It interacts with the wild type scaffolding protein, and it gums up the gears, and then poisons assembly," he said.

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on a single-strand DNA virus called øX174 that is related to the parvovirus that infects dogs.

While researchers previously came up with ways of preventing rod-shaped viruses from replicating in plants, the UA research marks the first time a mutant viral protein was used on a more complex icosahedral, or geodesic dome-shaped virus, Fane said.

"Targeting a viral-specific process could decrease existing drug side effects by more accurately targeting the causative agent of the disease," he said.

Ethical and scientific barriers to genetically engineering humans mean the discovery will not likely help people fend off viruses, at least until years from now, he said.

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