The more I look after plants, the quicker they die. However, I have recently taken an interest in gardening, and there is nothing as exhilarating as seeing 90% of your plants surviving your green fingers!

Why do I enjoy gardening? I was born into it! My mother and grandmother are avid gardeners. I grew up with colourful flowers surrounding our house, and after a few hours of being in the hot sun we enjoyed cold drinks on the soft green grass under my grandmother’s stinkwood tree. I am the most uncoordinated person you will ever meet in your life, but gardening is great for my hand-eye coordination as this needs to be in sync for the brain to receive the correct messages. Gardening is an excellent form of exercise and it’s also a way to commune with nature – birds, bees, butterflies and especially my two dogs, delight me. But as a stressed academic, gardening most importantly is an escape from reality, something that I need more of in my life. 

As a medical virologist, I am quite an expert in viruses that infect humans and animals. However, I am no plant biologist, much less a plant virologist, and the most knowledge I have of plants I gained during my first year of varsity in biology. I therefore cannot claim any specialist expertise, but bringing together my hobby and my studies I will give you a broad overview.

So, what is plant virology? The different plant virology groups focus on determining the epidemiology and population dynamics of known viruses as well as the discovery of novel plant viruses and implementation of appropriate diagnostic assays for their detection…But why is it important for scientists to be aware of plant viruses?

Viral diseases provide a major challenge to 21st century agriculture worldwide. Climate change and human population pressures are driving rapid alterations in agricultural practices and cropping systems that favor destructive viral disease outbreaks. Such outbreaks are strikingly apparent in subsistence agriculture in food-insecure regions. Agricultural globalization and international trade are spreading viruses and their vectors to new geographical regions with unexpected consequences for food production and natural ecosystems. Due to the varying epidemiological characteristics of divergent viral patho-systems, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach toward mitigating negative viral disease impacts on diverse agroecological production systems.

Viruses constitute a major cause of plant disease and have an estimated economic impact of >$30 billion annually. They constitute almost 50% of pathogens responsible for emerging and re-emerging plant diseases worldwide, and they damage natural vegetation as well as cultivated plants. Members of the begomoviruses, tospoviruses, and potyviruses all belong to three large plant virus groups that endanger food security by causing devastating diseases in tropical and subtropical food crops. In the South African context, maize meal is the staple food of many, especially in the poorer communities, and protecting these crops are of great importance.

So, how can we protect our plants – whether it be house plants or agricultural crops? Eradication or control of virus diseases is difficult given the complex and dynamic nature of virus epidemics and the great evolvability of viruses. For efficient and durable control, it is necessary to consider the genetic diversity and evolution of virus populations and have specific, fast, and reliable diagnostic tools. Disease management is based on two approaches: immunization to get resistant plants to viral infections, and prophylactic measures to restrain virus dispersion.

The research I’ve done for this blog post opened my eyes. Just like humans and animals, plants can also suffer from disease. It got me thinking…maybe it is not my over abundant love and care killing my precious plants, but some Evil Knievel virus attacking its cells. A plant requires patient labour and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfil good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.

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