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Wild desert plants are not immune to crop viruses

Just as humans grapple with seasonal illnesses, wild desert plants are falling victim to non-native crop viruses, which poses a previously unrecognized threat to their survival. This is the conclusion of a recent study led by Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of California, Riverside.

The discovery that crop pathogens can be transmitted to indigenous plants via insects challenges previous assumptions that wild plants are immune to such diseases.

Wild plants and crop viruses

“For years, the ecological field assumed wild plants were immune to invasive viruses that damage crops,” said study co-author Carolyn Malmstrom, a professor of plant biology and ecology at MSU. 

“But we’ve found that we need to be just as concerned about protecting indigenous plants as we are agricultural ones.” This finding underscores the critical need for conservation strategies that encompass both agricultural and native ecosystems to safeguard plant health.

Wild plants in their native habitats 

“Plant viruses are ubiquitous throughout plant communities, but research on viral impacts largely focuses on crops. Little is known about how viruses influence wild plants in their native habitats,” wrote the study authors.

“To address this gap, we examined virus interactions with wild drought-tolerant perennials in California desert natural areas encroached upon by agriculture.”

Focus of the study

Focusing on the desert areas of Southern California, the researchers studied the impact of crop viruses on the native Cucurbita species. Their investigation revealed alarming rates of infection with crop pathogens, particularly the cucurbit aphid-borne yellows virus (CABYV), which affected up to 88% of some wild plant populations. 

This high incidence of infection not only hampers plant growth but also poses a risk to the broader ecological community reliant on such plants.

Crucial components of desert ecosystems 

“These wild plants are crucial components of desert ecosystems, providing food and habitat for other species. Their decline from crop virus infections could have cascading effects on entire ecological communities,” Malmstrom said.

“Our findings should help the greater community recognize that our impact on the landscapes around us are not always obvious or clear to see,” added Tessa Shates, an infectious disease specialist at Quest Diagnostics and former researcher in entomology at MSU. “It’s easy to see the landscape changes of a clear-cut forest, but it is harder to recognize how hitchhiking microbes might change plant community structure over time.” 

Land management practices influence native ecosystems

These critical findings emphasize the interconnectedness of human activities, agriculture, and natural plant communities, urging a reevaluation of how land management practices influence native ecosystems.

The collaboration between MSU and UC Riverside, bridging plant biology and entomology, highlights the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to address complex ecological challenges. Malmstrom’s mentorship of early-career researchers like Shates exemplifies the collaborative spirit essential for advancing scientific understanding and developing sustainable solutions.

Nature and agriculture are intricately linked

“This project bridges the gap between agriculture and natural systems, reminding us that nature and agriculture are intricately linked. It also underscores the need for a more holistic approach to managing plant health and shows that understanding the complex dynamics of viruses in natural systems is essential for developing sustainable solutions that benefit both agriculture and biodiversity.”

More about crop viruses

Crop viruses are a significant category of plant pathogens that cause diseases affecting agricultural productivity worldwide. These viruses can infect a wide variety of crops, including fruits, vegetables, grains, and ornamental plants, leading to reduced yield, lower quality of produce, and significant economic losses.

A crop virus is essentially a piece of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, encapsulated within a protein shell. Unlike bacteria or fungi, viruses cannot replicate on their own and require living cells of their host plants to multiply. 

Spread of plant viruses

They are spread in several ways: through infected seeds, by the mechanical damage caused during farming operations, and most commonly, by vectors such as insects. Aphids, whiteflies, and mites are among the most notorious carriers, transferring viruses from infected to healthy plants as they feed on plant sap.

Symptoms of infection

Once inside the host, viruses hijack the plant’s cellular machinery to reproduce, often leading to symptoms such as stunted growth, leaf curling, yellowing, and mosaic patterns on leaves. These symptoms can severely affect the plant’s ability to photosynthesize, ultimately reducing crop yields.

Controlling crop viruses 

Controlling crop viruses remains a challenge due to their ability to evolve rapidly, overcoming resistance in crops. Ongoing research focuses on understanding virus-host interactions, virus transmission mechanisms, and developing innovative control strategies to safeguard food security.

The study is published in the Phytobiomes Journal.


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