The first plant virus

A little cerebral — but, if you’ve ever wondered if the ancients pulled their hair out over virus’ in prize plants, or whether it’s a modern phenomenon, you may be interested in this article about this possible early reference to plant virus, in a poem written by a Japanese Empress in 752 AD.

A.J. Hicks of the OGD writes, “flower break in tulips dating back to the early 1600’s was discovered by Carolus Clusius, but the disease (tulip breaking potyvirus) wasn’t pinned down until the 1930’s. Before this was known, it was considered a valuable characteristic. Of course, in the middle of “tulip madness”, just about everything tulipiferous was considered more valuable, the same way that unprofitable tech stocks were until a couple of years ago. 

Article from The Scientist

The first plant virus

Was a poem written over a millennium ago the first written record of a plant virus? | By C L Bishop

The Man’yoshu (meaning “collection of ten thousand leaves”) is the oldest anthology of poetry in Japan. One poem, written by the Empress Koken in 752 AD, describes the unusual autumnal appearance of eupatorium plants during the summer — they exhibit a characteristic yellow leaf pattern on their leaves, attributed to the presence of a geminivirus called eupatorium yellow-vein virus (EpYVV). In a Brief Communication in the April 24 Nature, Keith Saunders and colleagues at The John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK, show that a geminivirus and accompanying satellite component are responsible for the foliar patterns of eupatorium plants. This finding suggests that the poem also represents the first known
record of a plant virus (Nature, 422:831, April 24, 2003).

Saunders et al. investigated the possibility that, in addition to EpYVV, a DNA β-satellite component was required for the aetiology of eupatorium plants. Cloned tandem repeats of β-satellite DNA components and of geminiviruses were used to infect wild-type eupatorium plants. Diseased plants exhibited the characteristic phenotype, and analysis confirmed that both the β-satellite DNA and the EpYVV DNA were required. In addition, the disease and phenotype could be transmitted between plants by the whitefly Bemisia tabaci.

“[This] implies that such disease complexes were prevalent before the advent of modern intensive agriculture practices. Similar disease complexes have now been found in weeds, ornamental plants, and economically important crops throughout Africa and Asia, indicating that they are diverse and widespread, and represent a serious threat to
agriculture in the Old World,” conclude the authors.

Links for this article:

M. Onuki, K. Hanada, “Genomic structure of a geminivirus in the genus begomovirus from yellow vein-affected Eupatorium makinoi,” Journal of General Plant Pathology, 66:176-181, 2000.
K. Saunders et al., “The earliest recorded plant virus disease,” Nature, 422:831, April 24, 2003.
The John Innes Centre