Potential Virus Found in Switchgrass

Decreased biomass could impact cellulosic ethanol production.

Published on: Nov 4, 2010

Researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered a new virus belonging to a part of the genus of switchgrass. Switchgrass is one of the major biomass crops being depended on for cellulosic ethanol production. This new virus could substantially reduce the amount of biomass produced.

"Viral diseases are potentially significant threats to bioenergy crops such as Miscanthus x giganteus, energycane and switchgrass," said Bright Agindotan, research associate working in Carl Bradley’s laboratory as part of the Energy Biosciences Institute located in the Institute for Genomic Biology at the U of I. "Our team at EBI has been charged with identifying potential pests and pathogens of these bioenergy crops."

The virus is associated with mosaic and yellow streak symptoms on switchgrass leaves. This virus has the potential of reducing photosynthesis and decreasing biomass yield. Members of this genus have been known to cause severe yield losses in other crops. For example, Maize rayado fino virus (MRFV), a type member of the genus, has been reported to cause yield reductions in corn grown in Mexico, Central America and South America.

The identified virus in switchgrass is different, but related to the MRFV that has been reported to infect corn elsewhere, but has never been reported in Illinois. 

The Marafivirus was identified in switchgrass from a U of I research field near campus, where 20-30% of the plot was infected with this virus.

"We are still working on identifying the insects that are responsible for transmitting it," he said. "We know that its MRFV relative is transmitted by leafhoppers in corn, but we are still trying to confirm the exact species that transmit this virus in switchgrass."

At this time, researchers cannot confirm if this virus affects other crops, however the group will report the full genome sequence of the switchgrass virus soon.