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When Viruses Actually Save Their Hosts

What's the Latest Development?

By examining strands of RNA, cousins of DNA, biologists at Pennsylvania State University are discovering an entirely new and beneficial side to plant viruses. Most people rightly understand viruses as nasty vehicles for ill health that cause recognizable symptoms of disease. But another class of virus exists. Called persistent viruses, these foreign bodies are passed on from one generation to the next and can confer beneficial adaptations on their host organism. A recent study found that viruses help one species of plant to be drought resistant, and further experiments with a related virus showed that was true of 15 other plant species, too. 

What's the Big Idea?

Virus research is helping to cause a broad shift in the biological sciences as researchers come to see more and more organisms as symbiotic, i.e. reliant on other organisms for survival, rather than purely independent. "In the human case the symbionts are gut bacteria that help to process food, and also to regulate physiology." The research may also have profound implications for genetic engineers trying to manufacture drought and disease-resistant crops. "Instead of trying to improve the crops’ own genes they should be looking at the crops’ viruses and...actually infecting plants with new viral strains rather than doing everything in their power to keep crops virus-free."

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

Read it at the Economist

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