Understanding RNA viruses in forest ecosystems to prevent future pandemics

By studying RNA viruses in the forest ecosystems of Castilla y León (Spain), the research team aims to identify the possibilities of transmission and infection of existing RNA viruses among forest species and, theoretically, their possible transmission to humans.

Photo: Julio Javier Diez Casero
Photo: Julio Javier Diez Casero

Human pressure is greatly reducing the surface of European forest: more than half of Europe’s forests have disappeared in the last 6,000 years thanks to the increasing demand for agricultural land and the use of wood as a fuel source. In addition to this, the current changes in climate, which alter the conditions of the forest habitat, and globalization, allow the entry of new pathogens. Without the opportunity to co-evolve, the forests are under a great pressure, and the humans are under thread too. Due to globalization and urban massification, the human population, which could be considered as the most uncontrolled animal plague now on earth, may be affected by the appearance of new viruses, such as the current coronavirus pandemic.

For this reason, the study of viruses, and specifically RNA viruses in the forest ecosystem, is essential to understand these flows, and to prevent possible outbreaks of human diseases in the future.

The Forest Pests and Diseases research group at the University of Valladolid has been working for more than a decade in the study of forest RNA viruses. Its main action has been the study of fungal viruses (mycoviruses) as a form of natural disease control in forest ecosystems. Thus, in 2007 the group began to work on the control of chestnut chancre using dsRNA viruses, developing a system (in collaboration with WSL, Switzerland) that is currently being used by the JCYL Development and Environment Counseling for the effective control of the disease in affected areas.

Two years later, in collaboration with METLA (Finland), the group worked on a line on the viruses associated with the pathogenic fungus of a new disease in pines, effect of globalization, Gremmeniella abietina, where he discovered three new RNA viruses. After the appearance of another new invasive pathogen, Fusarium circinatum, from North America, the research group has continued the work of detecting new viruses by describing 3 RNA viruses new to science.

The main objectives of this project are:

  • To identify the RNAvirus present in three model forest ecosystems: a. coniferous forests, b. deciduous forests, c. evergreen hardwood forests in Castilla y León
  • Study the genetic diversity of the RNA viruses found, and their phylogenetic relationship
  • Investigate in silico the possible functions of the RNA viruses found, as well as their possible pathogenicity on different components of the forest ecosystem
  • Unravel the possibilities of RNAvirus transmission between three members of the kingdoms present in the forest ecosystem: trees, fungi and insects

The achievement of these objectives, in cooperation with the company BiomeMaker and the supercomputing center of Castilla y León (SCAYLE), will allow to identify the possibilities of transmission and infection of the existing RNA viruses among forest species, and theoretically, their possible transmission to man. These results would be of great interest not only for the community of Castilla y León, but on a global scale, so their impact on science would be high.

VIAJulio Javier Diez Casero
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iuFOR (University Institute for Sustainable Forest Management Research) is a mixed research and development unit between the INIA and the University of Valladolid, which is a forum for scientific and technical cooperation that carries out joint research activities, innovation, development, dissemination and technical support in the areas of forest management, silviculture, modelling, and biodiversity conservation.