The impact of plant viruses on human health - dr. Richard Kormelink

Many were caught by surprise when COVID-19 took over the world in record time. However, experts have been warning us of a situation like this for years. Shall we listen to them and prepare ourselves for the next pandemic? Influenza can be seen as a likely candidate to cause the next one. In this series of articles, we explore influenza and the possibility of it becoming the next pandemic by consulting experts from various fields.

In this article, we talk with dr. Richard Kormelink, a virologist specialized in plant viruses from Wageningen University and Research.


How does your work relate to influenza? 

I am a virologist with a keen interest in fundamental processes. Although my primary targets of investigation involve plant viruses, the model virus we are studying is from a family of viruses that primarily infect animals and humans. In other words, these viruses, irrespective of whether infecting plants or animals as a host, share many features. This may sound somewhat confusing, but if you look more into the biology of animals and plants many fundamental processes do not differ that much between these species. On this point, I am quite interested in how these viruses, ending up infecting different hosts, evolved from one common ancestor. But it is clear that being embedded in one family, being so much alike, many of the host cellular processes these viruses rely on are likely the same. One of the questions I am investigating is how our plant virus initiates the transcription of its own RNA genome into messenger molecules that are translated into viral proteins. This initiation process is a highly conserved process and very unique for a certain group of viruses to which also influenza belongs. Typical for this process is that the virus steals the “letter head” from host cellular messengers, to transform their own viral RNA molecules into messengers that can be recognized and translated by the host cell machinery into viral proteins. 


What will be your focus of your next research?

During our studies on a plant virus, we discovered specific features that we hypothesized to be generic for all viruses that employ this “letter head” stealing. Among those is also the influenza virus. So our next step was to test our findings on the influenza virus. Those studies showed that the influenza virus seems to act exactly the same as our plant virus. Our aim is now to investigate whether we can exploit this knowledge into antiviral drug design concepts that interfere in this process of “letter head” stealing, not limited to influenza virus only, but also to other viruses that use this mechanism and for which no vaccines are available yet.  


What can we learn about viruses and pandemics from your research concerning viruses in plants, animals and humans? 

Viruses are amongst, against and with us. We know many of them by the diseases they cause, sometimes leading to epidemics or even pandemics. However, many viruses we also don’t know because they remain in a kind of stealth mode, sometimes even being beneficial to their host. Still, we know so little about them and their impact on evolution, and by studying all of them, not only the medically important ones, we may not only learn from them but also identify targets and ways to interfere in their multiplication. The studies on the process of “letter head” stealing present a beautiful example on how fundamental knowledge generated on a plant virus can even initiate and support translational research activities that aim to develop new antiviral strategies against animal or human viruses.


“We should not only focus on medically important viruses that affect humans: the impact of some plant viruses on human health is sometimes much bigger compared to human-infecting viruses”


What is something you think our society should learn from the current pandemic to prepare for the next pandemic? 

Future pandemics will keep coming, and we cannot prevent that from happening, we can only better prepare. But we should not only focus on medically important viruses that affect humans: the impact of some plant viruses on human health is sometimes much bigger compared to human-infecting viruses. A major cause of famine in developing countries is often caused by enormous crop losses resulting from plant diseases, in which nearly 50% of all newly emerging plant diseases involve viruses.

Considering the likeliness of future pandemics involving viruses, and the huge financial investments now going into research on COVID-19, the international community should make efforts to strive towards more joint collaborative efforts and investments to tackle future pandemics.