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VirusDetect, a new bioinformatics pipeline for virus identification released

November 28, 2016

ITHACA, NY-- Researchers studying the viruses that affect agricultural production or human health now have a new tool for investigating where viruses have spread, on a local, national, or even global scale.

VirusDetect is a free, open-source bioinformatics pipeline that can efficiently analyze small RNA (sRNA) datasets to identify both known and novel viruses. Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) Associate Professor Zhangjun Fei and colleagues present this pipeline in a recent paper in Virology.

"We choose this small RNA sequencing technology because it is a highly efficient technology for virus identification and discovery," said Fei. "VirusDetect is the first bioinformatics tool that is specifically designed to analyze this kind of data for virus detection."

There are many ways to detect a virus. Traditional methods use microscopes, antibodies or molecular techniques that detect specific sequences of viral genetic material--all techniques that are not highly efficient, especially in detecting novel viruses. With newer sequencing technology, researchers can sequence viral DNA or RNA along with the host material, but this approach requires expensive, deep sequencing, and early, low-level infections can be easily missed.

VirusDetect takes advantage of an antiviral defense system shared by both plants and animals called RNA interference (RNAi). When a plant or animal cell is invaded by a virus, the cell churns out numerous small RNAs that are just 21-24 nucleotides long. By sequencing these small RNAs and feeding the dataset into the VirusDetect pipeline, scientists can predict the presence of RNA viruses, DNA viruses and viroids.

Fei's lab used this tool to create a Pan-African sweet potato virome, which describes all the viruses affecting sweet potatoes in multiple locations throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. With more than 1,000 field samples, the researchers couldn't process this much data manually and needed a high-throughput pipeline to identify the known and unknown viruses.

"You can use this strategy to investigate virus distribution, diversity and evolution at a large scale--a continent or even global scale. You can collect samples from all over the world," said Fei.
-end-
Yi Zheng, a postdoctoral scientist at BTI and Shan Gao, a former postdoctoral scientist at BTI and now a faculty member at Nankai University, China, are co-first authors on paper, with contributions from researchers at the USDA and the International Potato Center.

Funding for this project came from the U.S. National Science Foundation (IOS-1110080), the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (2012-01507-229756 and 2010-600-25320) and the CGIAR research program on roots, tubers and bananas.

URL upon publication: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0042682216303166

DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.virol.2016.10.017

Media Relations Contact: Patricia Waldron (607-254-7476, pjw85@cornell.edu)

To learn more about Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) research, visit the BTI website at http://bti.cornell.edu.

Connect online with BTI at http://www.facebook.com/BoyceThompsonInstitute and http://www.twitter.com/BTIScience.

About Boyce Thompson Institute

Boyce Thompson Institute is a premier life sciences research institution located in Ithaca, New York on the Cornell University campus. BTI scientists conduct investigations into fundamental plant and life sciences research with the goals of increasing food security, improving environmental sustainability in agriculture and making basic discoveries that will enhance human health.

BTI employs 150 staff, with scientists from 40 countries around the world and has twice been named as one of the Best Companies in New York State. Its 15 principal investigators are leading minds in plant development, chemical ecology, microbiology and plant pathology, and have access to the institute's state-of-the-art greenhouse facilities with computerized controls and a system of integrated pest management. BTI has one of the largest concentrations of plant bioinformaticists in the U.S., with researchers who work across the entire spectrum of "omics" fields. BTI researchers consistently receive funding from NSF, NIH, USDA and DOE and publish in top tier journals. Throughout its work, BTI is committed to inspiring and educating students and to providing advanced training for the next generation of scientists. For more information, visit http://www.bti.cornell.edu.

Boyce Thompson Institute

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