Advances in the study of virus-host interactions in plants may lead to breakthroughs in human health. Jared May, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) where his research focuses on how RNA plant viruses interact with their host cells during infection.
May became interested in viruses while earning his PhD in Microbiology from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. There, he studied human noroviruses that are often the cause of acute gastroenteritis outbreaks on cruise ships. As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland – College Park, May shifted his focus to model plant viruses to study various aspects of virus replication. Working with plant viruses offers several advantages including:
- Research costs are significantly lower
- Plant viruses are small, easily manipulated, and replicate to extraordinary levels
- Ethical concerns regarding infecting host organisms are minimal
Since starting his laboratory at UMKC in early 2020, May’s research has identified a plant virus movement protein that undergoes phase separation and supports critical virus-host interactions necessary for virus replication. Phase separation occurs when a solution of proteins or nucleic acids separate into a dense and dilute phase (like what occurs after shaking a bottle of salad dressing). Interestingly, the “N” protein from SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) also phase separates and shares many distinct features with plant virus movement proteins. Since the SARS-CoV-2 N protein is expressed at high levels in infected patients, N protein is widely regarded as a potential therapeutic target. Therefore, May has begun examining various aspects of N protein function using what he has garnered from studying plant virus counterparts. May hopes that determining how plant viruses use phase separation to maximize virus fitness will shed light on how viruses like SARS-CoV-2 have adapted to replicate in human cells and could lead to improved therapeutics.
“Viruses have been infecting every lifeform since the beginning of time. This tug of war between a host and a virus has been like a molecular arms race. They’re always fighting trying to get the upper hand,” said May. “That’s one of the things I find remarkable about viruses — even though they infect such diverse organisms, they are closely related. They share so much in common that what you find in one virus many times will translate to other viruses.”