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Research Overview

Molecular mechanisms of plant viruses  
We employ plant viruses as easy-to-use model systems to provide basic understanding of how viruses express genes and replicate. Because of similarities in translation and replication strategies across kingdoms, this knowledge may be relevant to major human viruses such as hepatitis A and C viruses, dengue, West Nile, and others.  At a more fundamental level, viruses are fascinating as the smallest, minimal replicating entities. They allow detailed understanding of what it takes to replicate, the essential property that defines life.

How cells decode the genetic code
We investigate the plethora of tricks by which viral messenger RNA usurps and controls the host translational machinery (translation factors and ribosomes).  We focus on the structures of viral RNA sequences that recruit host translation factors in the absence of the normally required “5’ cap” modification.  This research provides a better understanding of protein synthesis mechanisms and how the genetic code in nucleic acids is converted to amino acid sequence in functional proteins.  Who cares?   Well, this knowledge may allow us to modify viral sequences to regulate gene expression in beneficial ways, which may even contribute to the design of new anticancer drugs.

Sustainable control of crop diseases and pests
Plants
.  By sequencing many isolates of barley yellow dwarf and cereal yellow dwarf luteoviruses, we strive to improve the knowledge base of plant pathologists and breeders, who work to manage these viruses.  BYDV and CYDV are the most widespread and economically important viruses of wheat, barley and oats, worldwide.  They are poorly characterized and vary remarkably in sequence.  We determined complete nucleotide sequences of dozens of BYDV and CYDV isolates.  This work revealed much genome recombination and an entirely new virus, which we call Maize yellow dwarf virus.

In collaboration with visiting professor Havva Ilbaği, Namık Kemal University, Tekirdağ, Turkey, we are using Illumina sequencing to identify YDVs and discover new viruses infecting cereal crops and weeds in the Trakya Region of Turkey, as well as in Iowa corn.

In collaboration with professor Steve Whitham and others, we are engineering viruses to serve as aphid-transmitted "gene therapy" vectors to facilitate rapid, transient response to stresses such as drought and insect attack in maize.

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