Saving Our Wheaties

Dried wheat stalks against a wood background


Oh no! Dead crops. Could it be a CEREAL killer?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with The Loh Down on Science.

Viruses often attack our crops, acting like Trojan horses. They take over the plant, killing it.

To protect our wheat crops, we need to understand how these viruses work. Previously, researchers learned that the viruses’ shape allows it to latch onto wheat cells… But they couldn’t determine WHAT that shape was. Now, Christian Beren and colleagues at UCLA have cracked this viral mystery.

Beren’s virus detectives looked for clues using a microscope to magnify images ten million times. This close up revealed the viruses’ secret!

Three interlocking pieces of the virus act like a door. Two pieces are sturdy, like a frame. The third is weaker – a dog door that opens to let the virus RNA out to attack! By making the dog door portion sturdier the researchers could slow the infection. That gives the wheat more time to react and fight off the virus!

Beren hopes this information will protect our vital crops.

It’s elementary, my dear WHEATson!

Reference: Beren, C., Cui, Y., Chakravarty, A., Yang, X., Rao, A. L. N., Knobler, C. M., Zhou, Z. H., & Gelbart, W. M. (2020). Genome organization and interaction with capsid protein in a multipartite RNA virus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(20), 10673–10680.