6708 PB Wageningen
During my undergraduate degree, one of my mentors discouraged me from working on viruses because "we know everything about them". After all, we had more complete genome sequences than for any other organism and many insights in molecular biology are closely linked to viruses. What more could there be to learn about these simple life forms with relatively few genes? It turns out science was just beginning to scratch the surface! Nowadays we know that viruses are abundant in all environments, that they can have complex interactions with their host organisms despite their small sizes, and that they can impact whole ecosystems in many different ways. I have worked on the evolutionary biology, genetics and ecology of a number of different viruses, focusing on the plant viruses in recent years. I was initially interested in understanding the kinetics of virus infection and the evolution of major changes in their genomes. Now the focus of my work is on understanding how virus genome structure is linked to ecology and evolution, describing virus biodiversity in plant communities from natural ecosystems, and understanding how virus communities affect the composition and functioning of ecosystems. My dream is that we can predict patterns of virus spread and evolution in natural systems, and in doing so leverage these intriguing life forms.
Viruses show great diversity in their genome organization. Multipartite viruses package their genome segments into separate particles, most or all of which are required to initiate infection in the host cell. The benefits of such seemingly inefficient genome organization are not well understood. One hypothesised benefit of multipartition is that it allows for flexible changes in gene expression by altering the frequency of each genome segment in different environments, such as encountering different host species. The ratio of the frequency of segments is termed the genome formula (GF). Thus far, formal studies quantifying the GF have been performed for well-characterised virus-host systems in experimental settings using RT-qPCR. However, to understand GF variation in natural populations or novel virus-host systems, a comparison of several methods for GF estimation including high-throughput sequencing (HTS) based methods is needed. Currently, it is unclear how HTS-methods compare a golden standard, such as RT-qPCR. Here we show a comparison of multiple GF quantification methods (RT-qPCR, RT-digital PCR, Illumina RNAseq and Nanopore direct RNA sequencing) using three host plants (Nicotiana tabacum, Nicotiana benthamiana, and Chenopodium quinoa) infected with cucumber mosaic virus (CMV), a tripartite RNA virus. Our results show that all methods give roughly similar results, though there is a significant method effect on genome formula estimates. While the RT-qPCR and RT-dPCR GF estimates are congruent, the GF estimates from HTS methods deviate from those found with PCR. Our findings emphasize the need to tailor the GF quantification method to the experimental aim, and highlight that it may not be possible to compare HTS and PCR-based methods directly. The difference in results between PCR-based methods and HTS highlights that the choice of quantification technique is not trivial.
Understanding under which conditions conjugative plasmids encoding antibiotic resistance can invade bacterial communities in the gut is of particular interest to combat the spread of antibiotic resistance within and between animals and humans. We extended a one-compartment model of conjugation to a two-compartment model, to analyse how differences in plasmid dynamics in the gut lumen and at the gut wall affect the invasion of plasmids. We compared scenarios with one and two compartments, different migration rates between the lumen and wall compartments, and different population dynamics. We focused on the effect of attachment and detachment rates on plasmid dynamics, explicitly describing pair formation followed by plasmid transfer in the pairs. The parameter space allowing plasmid invasion in the one-compartment model is affected by plasmid costs and intrinsic conjugation rates of the transconjugant, but not by these characteristics of the donor. The parameter space allowing plasmid invasion in the two-compartment model is affected by attachment and detachment rates in the lumen and wall compartment, and by the bacterial density at the wall. The one- and two-compartment models predict the same parameter space for plasmid invasion if the conditions in both compartments are equal to the conditions in the one-compartment model. In contrast, the addition of the wall compartment widens the parameter space allowing invasion compared with the one-compartment model, if the density at the wall is higher than in the lumen, or if the attachment rate at the wall is high and the detachment rate at the wall is low. We also compared the pair-formation models with bulk-conjugation models that describe conjugation by instantaneous transfer of the plasmid at contact between cells, without explicitly describing pair formation. Our results show that pair-formation and bulk-conjugation models predict the same parameter space for plasmid invasion. From our simulations, we conclude that conditions at the gut wall should be taken into account to describe plasmid dynamics in the gut and that transconjugant characteristics rather than donor characteristics should be used to parameterize the models.
High throughput sequencing (HTS) has revolutionised virus detection and discovery, al-lowing for the untargeted characterisation of whole viromes. Viral metagenomics studies have demonstrated the ubiquity of virus infection—often in the absence of disease symptoms—and tend to discover many novel viruses, highlighting the small fraction of virus biodiversity described to date. The majority of the studies using high-throughput sequencing to characterise plant viromes have focused on economically important crops, and only a small number of studies have considered weeds and wild plants. Characterising the viromes of wild plants is highly relevant, as these plants can affect disease dynamics in crops, often by acting as viral reservoirs. Moreover, the viruses in unmanaged systems may also have important effects on wild plant populations and communities. Here, we review metagenomic studies on weeds and wild plants to show the benefits and limita-tions of this approach and identify knowledge gaps. We consider key genomics developments that are likely to benefit the field in the near future. Although only a small number of HTS studies have been performed on weeds and wild plants, these studies have already discovered many novel vi-ruses, demonstrated unexpected trends in virus distributions, and highlighted the potential of met-agenomics as an approach.
Multipartite viruses have segmented genomes and package each of their genome segments individually into distinct virus particles. Multipartitism is common among plant viruses, but why this apparently costly genome organization and packaging has evolved remains unclear. Recently Zhang and colleagues developed network epidemiology models to study the epidemic spread of multipartite viruses and their distribution over plant and animal hosts (Phys. Rev. Lett. 2019, 123, 138101). In this short commentary, we call into question the relevance of these results because of key model assumptions. First, the model of plant hosts assumes virus transmission only occurs between adjacent plants. This assumption overlooks the basic but imperative fact that most multipartite viruses are transmitted over variable distances by mobile animal vectors, rendering the model results irrelevant to differences between plant and animal hosts. Second, when not all genome segments of a multipartite virus are transmitted to a host, the model assumes an incessant latent infection occurs. This is a bold assumption for which there is no evidence to date, making the relevance of these results to understanding multipartitism questionable.
The Second Annual Meeting of the European Virus Bioinformatics Center (EVBC), held in Utrecht, Netherlands, focused on computational approaches in virology, with topics including (but not limited to) virus discovery, diagnostics, (meta-)genomics, modeling, epidemiology, molecular structure, evolution, and viral ecology. The goals of the Second Annual Meeting were threefold: (i) to bring together virologists and bioinformaticians from across the academic, industrial, professional, and training sectors to share best practice; (ii) to provide a meaningful and interactive scientific environment to promote discussion and collaboration between students, postdoctoral fellows, and both new and established investigators; (iii) to inspire and suggest new research directions and questions. Approximately 120 researchers from around the world attended the Second Annual Meeting of the EVBC this year, including 15 renowned international speakers. This report presents an overview of new developments and novel research findings that emerged during the meeting.