News & Opinion | March 18, 2019 5:00 am

New Discovery Changes How We Think About Viruses

French researchers find plant virus that can split up its genetic code to infect cells and reproduce.

A new virus discovery could change how we approach patient care. (Getty Images)
Getty Images/Science Photo Libra

All viruses are just collections of genes packaged into capsules that infiltrate and hijack living cells to make extra copies of themselves—or so we though.

University of Montpellier researchers have now discovered that the genes of the faba bean necrotic stunt virus (FBNSV) are split among eight segments, each of which is packaged into its own capsule and can reproduce itself, even if the segments infect different cells. FBNSV doesn’t need to have all of its own components in the same place to be an effective virus, The Atlantic reported, meaning it’s always distributed and split among different host cells.

“This is truly a revolutionary result in virology,” Siobain Duffy of Rutgers University, who wasn’t involved in the study, said. “Once again, viruses prove that they’ve had the evolutionary time to try just about every reproductive strategy, even ones that are hard for scientists to imagine.”

FBNSV is one of several “multipartite viruses” that split their genes among different capsules. While they account for about 20 percent of known viral species, they’re still considered rather obscure.

“I lecture on several virology courses, and even people in Ph.D. programs haven’t heard of them,” lead researcher Stéphane Blanc lamented. “They’re everywhere, but because they’re mainly on plants, no one cares.”

“This report challenges a fundamental assumption of virology,” added Rodrigo Almeida of the University of California at Berkeley, who studies plant diseases. “I am not aware of any similar example in biology, where genetic information appears to be split among host cells.”

This discovery could change our understanding of—and course of treatment for—viruses that affect people, like influenza.