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Department of Plant Sciences

Viruses make plants too spicy for aphids

Plant-infecting viruses cause severe crop losses.  Most of these viruses are carried between plants by insects- especially by aphids.  The Virology group at the Department of Plant Sciences found that an important crop-infecting virus, cucumber mosaic virus, changes the way that Arabidopsis thaliana plants taste to aphids by causing these plants to make more glucosinolates; the same type of natural chemical that gives mustard (a close relative of Arabidopsis) its hot taste.  By causing infected plants to repel aphids as soon as they have picked up the virus, cucumber mosaic virus is likely to increase the rate at which aphids spread disease to other plants plants.  As part of the work, the team identified three specific viral factors that tweak plant immune pathways and the small RNA systems.  Small RNAs control the RNA silencing network, which plays important roles in defence against virus infection and in the regulation of the plant’s own genes.

This better understanding of how viruses can help us to design innovative strategies to combat insect pests and the viruses they transmit – especially for resource-poor farmers in developing countries.  The group has started a new project funded by the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development programme to translate this work to crops. 

Read more at the University of Cambridge and at the BBSRC here.

Read the paper in PLOS ONE:10.1371/journal.pone.0083066

Picture: In some experiments the team needed to electronically monitor the feeding behaviour of aphids to find out what kind of plant cells the insects preferred feeding from and for how long they would feed.  The image shows an aphid carrying a ‘back-pack’ of conductive silver and gold wire that connects it to the recording apparatus (credit: Drs. Jack Westwood and Glen Powell).