Fundamental Virology: Same Objectives, Changing Tools

Jeremy R. Thompson
2021 Frontiers in Virology  
Despite their biological limitations, viruses have provided us with an incredible wealth of information on the higher organisms they infect. Seen in the best of light, viruses provide us with the necessary tools to discover the essential building blocks of life. As our knowledge and appreciation of virus diversity grows we appear to be at a tipping point in how we perceive them; from simply being agents of disease to basic components of life-mobile genetic elements that enrich all life forms
more » ... better and worse. History shows that fundamental research of viruses has been essential in the development of our understanding of molecular and genetic processes. Studies in the late fifties, sixties and seventies on the T4 bacteriophage were critical to solving the mysteries of the genetic code with discoveries of the triplet nature of the genetic code (1), non-sense codons [see Stahl (2)] and the collinearity of the gene with the polypeptide chain [see Brenner (3) ]. As the tools of virology and the number of known viruses multiplied so too did the palette of techniques used to decipher the molecular mechanisms of the cell; contributing in the seventies to the elucidation of RNA polyadenylation (adenovirus and polyomavirus) [see Edmonds (4) ], mRNA capping (reovirus) [see Furuichi and Shatkin (5)], RNA splicing (adenovirus) [see Berk (6)], tyrosine kinases (retrovirus) [see Hunter (7) ], and reverse transcriptases [see Coffin and Fan (8) ]. Our understanding of RNA and its unique structural properties were further expanded in the eighties by the discovery in plants of hammerhead ribozymes (secovirus satellite and avsunviroid) (9, 10) and pseudoknots (tymovirus) (11). Indeed, staying within the plant realm, the transformative effect that basic research in virology has had on biological concepts is however probably best exemplified by tobacco mosaic virus, the first virus ever to characterized as such by Beijerinck (12) and the first to be purified by Stanley (13) ; work that led to its macromolecular dissociation and reconstitution and the first evidence that the RNA alone (not protein) had biological activity and was the "genetic material" (14). This physical dissection of its virions was to provide the scientific community with one of the best models of macromolecular organization and the foundation of nanobiotechnology. THE CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES The negative effects of humans' continued encroachment on and exploitation of the natural world is becoming all the more painfully evident. Viruses are continually evolving threatening our species health and those species we depend on for survival. In humans, viruses make up over half of all emerging diseases and cause 10-20% of cancers (15, 16 ) and yet, if used responsibly they could serve as an ally in a multitude of applications; from gene therapy (17) and nanotechnology (18) to cross protection (19) and vaccines (20) . Critical to our ability to utilize our collective knowledge across an ever growing landscape of specialty subjects that are used to understand basic virology will be how we synergically
doi:10.3389/fviro.2021.689478 fatcat:nqnkvg7hvfeuhgmmszcfik6vnu