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Plant Viruses / X Files Science

Dr. Anne Simon describes viral threats to plant biology, and discusses how scientists have harnessed viruses to solve problems in agriculture. Dr. Simon also discusses her role as technical advisor to The X Files.

Feb 19, 2022 by Dr. Kevin Folta in Talking Biotech

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Dr. Anne Simon is an expert in plant viruses. She describes some of the current threats to plant biology, and discusses ways that viruses may be used to work for us, rather than against us. She also discusses her time as a technical advisor to The X Files series, and how that experience helped her to share science. Follow Dr. Simon on Twitter here!


Dr. Kevin Folta: [00:00:00] Welcome to the talking biotech podcast. A podcast brought to you by Culebra and R and D platform that brings your labs world changing research together in one shared space. I'm Kevin Folta, and I'm grateful for you to join me on this weekly podcast about biotechnology and how these modern day tools in DNA science are transforming agriculture, medicine and conservation. We'll cover many other topics to featuring leaders at the forefront of science. Hi everybody. And welcome to this week's podcast. This week's podcast features someone I've wanted to have on for a long time. And someone has been very active in social media, as well as in science and someone who has been sharing her views on science, through a number of different conduits for a very long [00:01:00] time. We're speaking with Dr. Anne Simon, and she is a virologist at the university of Maryland, but she's also the head of the advisory board on sylvac biologics and welcome to the podcast, Dan. Well, thank you very much for having me on Kevin. It's great to be here. It's fun to talk to you because we're not doing this. Yeah, that's true. That's true. I see you on Twitter. Well, I, yeah, I mean, I guess you could say, see, but I see you on Twitter virtually every day and there are every day and it's such a cool place to be able to communicate science with the general public, especially in the days of COVID-19 and you know, you, you, you have a great opportunity to influence the conversation as you've seen. Dr. Anne Simon: Well, you have a wonderful voice on Twitter. And what I really appreciate is how calm you are at responding to what are some pretty vitriolic tweets, [00:02:00] and the only person that I've seen on Twitter, who does it as well as you as is Chelsea Clinton who responds to things. And she's always just so measured and just thank you. And, and I'm sorry you feel this way. I haven't been, but you're very much like that too. So I really enjoy reading your tweets and. And I'm, I'm just very happy to finally be here on the ship. Well, it's really great to have you aboard because I followed you for a very long time in a number of contexts. And I will touch on those today. But the first half of the podcast, I'd really like to talk about plant viruses because plant viruses really took a backseat to the human viruses, you know, right now. Oh, we can hear your dog. Oh, yes. That's, that's my dog, Cassie puppy. And she's 15, she's still a puppy and she's snoring. And unfortunately she has to be in here with me. So I hope the, I hope the audience doesn't mind a little snoring in the [00:03:00] background. Well, that's all right. Is they the big issue on this side is that they usually have to endure the sounds of chickens and turkeys outside. That's my problem. And I try to, I try to screen all that out using electronic other filters that never works, but that's all right. So we'll hear your dog song logs in the background. The big thing I'm interested in is really to open up the audience's eyes about plant viruses. We know all about SARS, cov two, and the things that are happening in human viruses, but plant viruses. Alive and well, and causing problems everywhere. And I really, you know, we, we don't have any real format here today so much because I just thought we would have a freeform discussion about plant viruses and where they come from. So let's go back in history, you know, what do we know about plant viruses and when they were discovered? So plant viruses were discovered in the last century and they actually were the very first viruses that were discovered. The virus tobacco mosaic [00:04:00] virus was the, was the first virus that was characterized. And we take great pride in that as plant virologists. But plant viruses are just so much more than that. I, I work on, well, I worked on modeled viruses. So once a virus gets into a cell, what it does is actually very similar to what animal viruses. And some of the research that's come out of my lab actually was a applicable to the work that goes on with. So a number of people who are working on plant viruses have made discoveries that were then later found to also be important for animal viruses. So it's a very vibrant field because there's not only the problems that we have in, in crops. And what I worry about a lot, which is trees. But they're also just wonderful to study. You don't have to, you know, kill anything that isn't a plant and you can really make an enormous amount of progress by, [00:05:00] by looking at the organism with the animal viruses. So often you're, you're only in cells, cells, and culture, but plant viruses, we can work in the whole organism as well as in a, in a culture cell culture system and a as well as a, in a cell-free system. So, so we have some advantages and those of us working on, on such subjects as the, how viruses replicate. And how they are the blueprints for proteins which is what I specialize in. We've made a lot of progress and frankly, the work going on in plant viruses is more is a further along than the work going on an animal viruses. And some of these areas it's really interesting because as you mentioned, tobacco, mosaic virus was the first virus that was really characterized or at least imaged. Right. And, and, and how, how it's huge relative to other viruses. I think huge in a historical sense, but tobacco mosaic is actually a kind of a small virus or any virus is a big one. All right. [00:06:00] No, that's a, it's an okay. Sized one. It, you know, nothing special. But it's, it's a very interesting virus. It has a, it's got a very long rod shaped structure to it. And so people worked out the structure a long time ago when. And a lot is known about just how the virus gets into a cell and how it, how it gets packaged. Surprisingly, not as much as known about how it's replicated or translated. I think people moved on to other viruses that the, that they enjoyed working with more and let the tobacco mosaic virus for the the, kind of the, the historians of of the field, but tobacco, mosaic virus. I I'll just say one more thing about it is it, it is interesting because, you know, virtually all plant viruses, just like animal viruses are vectored. So the way that they get into into a host, which in this case is plants is through an insect or a beetle or Amelie bug or something like that. But tobacco, [00:07:00] mosaic virus has a much larger vector and that's us. We vet. And when we, when we cut if you, if you grow tomato because tobacco, mosaic virus, some fixed tomato, and you say, oh, what's this black and the part of the plant, let me use my sheers and cut it off. Ah, and then here's another, a tomato plant. It looks very healthy, but I'm going to just give it a little clip here with the same sheers and what you've done is you've transferred the virus. So people are the vectors. That's really interesting because I know a lot of folks who do a lot of cutting and grafting and don't bother cleaning their sheers. So you're just a, another, yep. You are another vector. There's a couple of viruses that are like that in the plant world where the people are, the vectors are the cows that are, that are, you know, stomping on an infected plant and stomp on another know, that's how it gets transferred. That's really cool. So what is there happening in [00:08:00] the diversity of plant viruses? When you look across, you know, human viruses, you could think of a number of different ones that are at present, but what's happening in plants more or less diverse. Oh, there it's much more diverse in plants than it is an animal. There are so many more plant viruses known than animal viruses and they're causing, I mean, a lot of viruses are in plants, but not causing any symptoms. And these are the ones that are now being found a lot because, you know, in the past, nobody looked at a perfectly healthy tree and said, gee, I wonder what viruses are in here because it costs money to do that. And people aren't willing to pay you just to have fun and see what viruses are in various in symptom lists of plants. But by doing that, they found a large number of new viruses. And. That are symptomless, but, but the ones of course, that we worry about are the ones that cause very severe symptoms. And [00:09:00] what I personally worry about these days is the viruses that infect trees. So this is a little bit new for me. I always worked on model symptom systems and I, I never really thought much about important viruses and props and things like that. I thought, well, that's for other people. And then I realized that there are just so many problems right now, out there. And it's time for some of us who have, you know, garnered a great deal of knowledge to turn our attention to some of these agricultural problems and use our knowledge to to try to solve some of these issues. And so I try to try to get other people to do it too, but it's something that, that I did about the two years ago, I made a, a complete U-turn. And most of the research that we did to concentrate on unimportant viruses of trees and buying well, that that's really important. And it's good for the audience to understand that in plant biology, a [00:10:00] lot of us, you know, a number of us grew up with a rabbit opposites, and that was the model system that allowed us to work. And it was the white lab rat of the plant world. And we'd start to take the findings to, to the field and see how they do and do not apply. And so when you start looking at plant viruses, Outside of a rabbit Opsis you mentioned trees, but let's go across all of plants, especially economically important ones. What are some examples of diseases that cause problems in plants that really threatened either food security or potentially consumer choice? Yeah. So there are quite a few viruses in this category. There are of course, some very, very important bacteria and fungi in that category as well. The worst one you've probably had on your show already is, is the bacteria that causes citrus screening. And the fact that we have maybe eight to 10 more years of citrus to enjoy, because at the end of that time all [00:11:00] of the trees that are currently growing outside of greenhouses will be dead all over the world. And the lemon or orange is going to cost, you know, 20 or $30. And it's, it's literally a decade of. So this is the most important agricultural issue of our time and it's caused by bacteria. But but as far as viruses my personal number to in this category is this virus that's called cacau swollen shoot virus, and it causes a disease called cacau, swollen chute disease. It's a very, very clever name. And this doesn't affect us in the us, but it certainly is unbelievably damaging in Africa, in the ivory coast and in Ghana and in in in west Africa in the entire cacau industry is threatened right now. And what that means for consumers is the end of [00:12:00] inexpensive. Because over 75% of the, of the cacao, which is what chocolate is made from is grown in Western Africa. And all of these trees are threatened and millions and millions, hundreds of millions of trees I believe are dead right now and diseased. And the problem with viruses and trees is it's not like people. I mean, we have vaccines, wonderful vaccines. I'm sure you're triple vaccinated. I'm triple vaccinated. We have some products that are now available that will help us to control symptoms of, of COVID that's ravishing around these days. But for plant viruses, there's nothing, there's no cure. There's no treatment for any plant virus. No. And this is, this was shocking when I found this out. So the only thing they can do for and [00:13:00] shoot virus is chop the trees down. That's it. And if they replant in the same place, that tree will, that young sapling of a tree will get infected again. And so I'm trying to get rid of the vector it's Amelie bug it it's, it's an impossible, it's impossible to do. So they're left with really no alternatives right now for these trees that are getting infected by this devastating, absolutely devastating virus. And it destroys the, the the Paquel, the seeds, and then it, and it kills the tree. And so that's just one, there are so many other viruses like that, and the reason I'm I'm so interested in trees is that. If you have a crop and a virus, you know, gets into the crop well you lose the crop. And in some places, of course, that would, that would affect food security [00:14:00] in the U S not so much, but it's one season. And then you can rotate a crop. You can use a crop that, that, that virus doesn't infect. There are ways of getting around it, but with trees, you know, cacau trees, for example, live for 40 or 50 years and to have all of these trees die and it takes years and years before a tree starts producing seeds in, in it for a number of trees that, that produce actually, you know, fruit and things like that, it takes years. So the, the farmers are just getting more and more devastated. It's millions of people in that part of the world depend on these trees. And the economy of the countries that they're grown in, depend on these trees and they're all dying. So this is a terrible problem. Not only for a chocoholic like me, but, but this is, I mean, [00:15:00] literally this will devastate people. It's a very important crop because it's, it's, it produces a lot of money and, and it's not going to be there much longer. So that's a big problem. So that's, that's, that's another one. I mean, there's so many more, I could talk about grapevine. Oh gosh. There's 80 viruses that infect grapevine, including some that have just emerged and they can't keep the viruses out of the clean stocks. So you probably talked about how there's there's groups that produce the seedlings for. And certified that they're clean of viruses. And so in, in Davis, California, that produces the seedlings for the, for the grapevine industry. They can't keep this virus out. I think the virus that they're having such problems with is grapevine red block, which is this, this a Gemini virus. What that means is it's a DNA virus. [00:16:00] It's, it's rare that DNA plants don't have that many DNA viruses, but it's a DNA virus that that infects grapevine and they can't keep it out. So it's, it's moving into the grape, the fields and some of these grapevines, I mean, you know, people have them, they've imported them from France, you know, a hundred years ago. And these grapevines live a long time and then to get them infected. And again, there is only one solution. You have to destroy the great fine. You have to kill it. There is no there's, there's no treatment. So I have to push back a little bit because papaya is a great example of how you can use biotechnology to achieve a solution. So why is that or not? Wait, why is it viable or not? So papaya, what they did with papaya in Hawaii was absolutely amazing and wonderful. [00:17:00] And biotechnology saved the papaya industry in Hawaii and what you can do. So saying that there's no treatment possibly, I should say there's no current treatment for most of these viruses. But there is a treatment for a virus that infects papaya called papaya ring spot. And this virus just was devastating. The papaya in Hawaii was the end. It was the end of their industry. And then in Cornell they developed a a genetically modified papaya that produced. Just a tiny, tiny piece of the virus. We discovered that if you have a tiny piece of the virus around the plant's natural defense system is able to use that to counter infection by the virus. So what they did is they made a transgenic papaya producing this tiny little bit of, of the virus. And now the [00:18:00] industry has come back. The plants are completely protected against this horrible virus. And what I should say about that is that papaya around the world is threatened by this virus. And right now in central America and in Mexico, I believe in south America, the papaya are all getting infected by papaya ring spot fires, and they're dying. And there is a solution. These wonderful. Genetically modified papaya is their solution, but they won't use it. And that's, it's so sad. It's, it's devastatingly sad that the solution is right in front of them. It's safe. It's it's perfect. And yet they, you know, it's, it's so unfortunate that consumers have been convinced by people who, who, you know, lie for money. I mean, I don't, I don't even know how to say it. It's, it's so [00:19:00] awful that that there's something wrong and that they shouldn't do it. And so they, they don't have the solution. So yes, there is a solution for, for grapevine and for oranges. It's a little more complicated though. Grapevine and oranges than it is for papaya. There really is I think just one type of papaya. And then there's another type of papaya called , which is like papaya, but grown in the mountains. And so making a genetically modified papaya could be used by papaya growers all over with citrus. There's 400 different varieties of citrus. And so you would need 400 genetically modified citrus which will, which would take, you know, quite a lot of time. And I know that people certainly were started on it, but what's, what's really devastating because I was there at the beginning of the biotech. The beginning of a. [00:20:00] Of a biotechnology and plants. And we were so helpful. I mean, I sat next to it, a Gordon conference, the person who had developed the the golden rice way back and he had just done it and he P he presented a seminar on it. It was so exciting. And we were all just so excited by this new technology and how it could safely you know, produce products that were just so beneficial to society. And we just thought how wonderful it is that science was going to lead to such a transformation and, and, and presents so many solutions. And then to have what what's happened up to this time is it really is devastating. And, and many of the large seed companies are getting out of their, their biotech divisions now. So it it's, it is, it's very sad. It really is because here in Florida, we also have papaya ring spot and they've actually approved a genetically engineered [00:21:00] knockoff of the why solution for Florida farmers and Florida farmers want it, but they still don't do it. And it's strictly because of the pushback that would come from activist groups that have scared the heck out of an industry as to, well, we'll just boycott and you'll never sell another papaya again. And so this is, this is what we're up against here. And I guess what's really interesting as you mentioned, you know, the golden rice situation where here we are 20 years after at least 20, maybe 25, after that seminar, that Gordon conference you were at, and it's finally being adopted in the Philippines. And so how do we, well, how do, how, how do we. What is there anything we can do now? You know, you mentioned the companies getting out of this at the same time, a lot of young startups are getting into it because gene editing really has democratized the process. So, you know, what's your prognosis going forward? [00:22:00] Well, I'd like to think that gene editing will be viewed as just another way of, of, you know, modifying plants, just like what they do with seeds and, and you know, take them to the nuclear reactors and, and make a lot of mutations in them. And somehow that's perfectly fine to do, and you'll have seeds with thousands of different mutations and that's not regulated, you know, go ahead organic, but you make a one specific change, just one tiny little specific change and all of a sudden it's, you know, get the torches and pitchforks. So I, if, you know, it's. If people have to lie, if they have to lie to make their point, I just wish consumers would wake up and say, you shouldn't have to lie about products to make your point. And the fact that since the first genetically engineered plants were developed and we've been [00:23:00] consuming them for, you know, over 25 years now, and certainly in supermarkets, I choose them because I know that that it's better for the environment. And I know that, that they don't have the same amount of pesticides applied and things like that. So I actually would rather have the genetically modified version than any other. But it's, it's just very sad that that there's been this E I mean, you know, the, the, the, that consumers have just not that they'd been listening to people that are. Not telling them the truth and it's, that's very unfortunate. That's why I've said for a long time, that if I want to change the situation with food and farming, it's not going to be a solution that comes out of a laboratory. It's going to be a solution that comes out of my mouth. And it really is about how we communicate the [00:24:00] science with the public and how we can use. The M the media to work for us rather than against us. And I know you've done a lot of work in this area. So when we come back on the other side of the break, we'll talk about your influential role in major media and television and how you got that job. And you know, what's happening next in that kind of space. So we'll come back in just a moment with more of the talking biotech. This podcast is brought to you by collabora collaborative focuses on building the user experience that science is love, but none of that matters. If your data is not safe, this means SOC two type 2 21 CFR part 11, GMP annex, 11 GDPR, CCPA, and other standards that your legal team really cares about. Collaborative follows the strictest global [00:25:00] and regional industry standards to protect your data. Learn more by visiting forward slash compliance. Now we're back on the talking biotech podcast. We're speaking with Dr. Anne Simon, she's at the university of Maryland and also the head of the advisory board for select biologics. And we're talking about plant viruses and the ways that we defeat them. And before the break, we were kind of lamenting together the fact that we're not able to use biotechnology to be able to solve these problems, at least in the traditional sense of building virus, resistance plants, such as papaya, which was amazingly successful, but we've had other ways of introducing genes that maybe weren't hard installations in the genome. And this idea of using [00:26:00] viruses to deliver, you know, maybe a an antisense RNA or something, you know, what's happening in those fronts. Right? So this is Y I co-founded Sylvie biologics with my brother Rafael and it was based on a discovery that I made just a chance discovery. I found something in the database and it looked like my virus that I worked on, but it was different. It was something I'd never seen before. And what I found out was that it has only been found once in citrus, in 1950s. And I'm the person who found it and put it in the database wasn't working on it. So I started working on it and it turned out to be it's like a virus. But it infects just about everything. And so the idea was to see, since it does infect everything and it's symptomless in virtually everything and it also infects papaya by the way and cacao [00:27:00] and citrus, all citrus. And the grapevine and lots of other plants. It's very, very unusual. And what we thought was that having something like this with such a wide host range, maybe we could turn it into what's called a bigs vector. And that starts, that stands for virus induced, gene silencing. So just like the papaya trees in Hawaii are producing a small RNA that silences papaya ring spot virus. We could have that small RNA delivered by a virus itself, a symptomless virus. So this way the genome doesn't get modified and there isn't some big outcry about it then. So so we founded Sylvatic and we are actually able to do this with our little. Virus one of the problems in the past, since it's very well known, VIX has been around for a 20 years, at least. And so people have asked me, well, why aren't people [00:28:00] using this as a solution for some of these terrible diseases like citrus screening and the olive trees that are dying in the cacao trees that are dying. And the reason was the bigs vectors were not stable. So viruses don't like it. When you put things in them, they, they object and they tend to spit out what you put in. And so having things, you know, if you're going to put it into a tree, it's got to last, it's got to be stable for. You know, 30 years, 40 years and, and vigor vectors are stable for a week or two. And so we worked on this, I I'm an expert on RNA structure and function and translation, and it turned out to be exactly what was needed to stabilize the vectors. So we have got the first stable VIX vectors they're completely stable and they will last in trees. And so we think that maybe we're going to be able to solve some of these problems. So [00:29:00] it's very exciting having this new technology that uses viruses to deliver smaller and A's, and hopefully we're going after citrus greening, and we're going after the cacao disease, we're partnering with the cacao Institute in Ghana to do. And we've got partners all over the world for other things including Australia and collaborations all over. So it's just a very, very exciting time to be working on this. And so I'm, I'm happy and hopefully we'll come up with a solution. That's really well. It is really exciting because there are so many food staple crops that are threatened by viral diseases. And you mentioned cacao, which is really big in the ivory coats, Conda, those areas of Western Africa, but you know, cassava brown streak, virus, other other you know, what are some of the other big ones in global food security that are virus induced that may benefit from such technology? I think there's a [00:30:00] lot. There's a, well, let me, let me put it this way. It, if you're talking about annuals, That's a little bit different. There are technologies that use bigs that can deliver the virus because these are not stable vectors for a short growing season, and they can change some of the attributes of the plant. In other words, maybe make them resistant to drought. If all of a sudden you have a drought or they can if you have a virus infecting or a fungal infection they can deliver small RNs that can attack the fungus that can attack the bacteria. So there, there are ways of doing this with other virus vectors for annuals, and we're really concentrating on the, the situation with the trees and it isn't just viruses that we're going after. In some senses, it is so there's a particularly bad virus that infects citrus and it's called [00:31:00] citrus stays. And this is something that in certainly in Florida probably virtually every tree is infected with citrus, just stays a virus and the same for California. And it used to be a really terrible virus when you grew the trees on a different rootstock a rootstock called sour orange and all of the trees, all of the citrus trees used to be grown on this root step because it's a great root stock. And it, it it's resistant to a lot of different pathogens and the trees are really healthy and, and then came along, citrus juice stays of virus back in the 1950s. And all of the trees died. They had to replace all the citrus trees with a different root stock because of such as to stay as a virus. So if we can go after this virus, which we can in the laboratory very, very well, we can go after this virus, we can keep plants from being infected with using this technology that we have. Then then the growers could actually return to [00:32:00] sour orange rootstocks if they could be assured that they would not be infected by such as disease, a virus. And I think that that would be more resistant to to HLB, to the citrus, greening and other pathogens that there's some that are these little tiny, they're not viruses, but they're kind of like viruses called viroids. And there's some pretty devastating viroids. So the avocado people are very interested in South Africa and in Australia and other places with our technology. If our little thing can go into avocado and move around and infect avocado because this viral load, this avocado sunblock for viroids as it is, is a terrible. And then there are just so many other problems like Palm trees. There's a viral viroids called coconut by Roy, which is loosely translated to me, coconut death, death thyroid. So you know what it does [00:33:00] wipes. And no treatment have to chop the trees down, but we're trying to see whether or not our, our little virus will actually move around and S and the infect the poem as well. And if so, then we may be able to control for this vibrate. We should be able to. So, w well, let's talk a little bit about viroids because that, that is a it's. Well, what a viroids, if a virus is the borderline of life, the viroids is somewhere north of the borderline. I mean, the vibrate itself. I mean, all, all of this is, well, could you explain what a vibrate is and why those are okay, so viruses they are, they all have, they all are a blueprint for the production of proteins that the virus needs to replicate. And in plants, they all produce a protein called a movement protein, which allows them to move around. In the plant and [00:34:00] movement proteins are specific for specific plants. And this is part of what gives the virus host range. So if a virus has a particular movement, protein, it can move maybe in a rabbit Opsis, but it cannot move in citrus because the plants are so different. So viroids are very different because they don't code for anything. They're just a piece of RNA. That's all they are. And the RNA is circular. So it's a little itsy bitsy, circular RNA, which means that everything that's needed to propagate a viral load has to come from the host. It needs host proteins to help it move. It needs host proteins to, to make it replicate. And some of the fun parts for any listeners who know a little molecular biology, is that what replicates a virus is actually a protein that recognizes DNA [00:35:00] that actually makes RNA off of DNA. And yet it recognizes the RNA of a viral void. It thinks that the virus is DNA and it makes RNA from it. So viroids you would think, you know, it's just a naked RNA. Why would this be a problem? And the answer is because RNA is a problem. It, it changes the development of the plants. It kills plants. Some of the worst diseases are caused by these little itsy bitsy RNs. So the interesting thing is what I discovered, which is kind of halfway between a viral. I don't know if I call it halfway between a virus and a viroids, but like viruses, it, it has the blueprint for making its replication proteins that doesn't rely on the host for the major replication proteins. It relies on the host, just like all plant viruses for lots and lots and lots and [00:36:00] lots of other proteins. But like a viral Lloyd, it uses host proteins to move. And in fact, it uses the same protein to move that viroids use, which is astonishing. It's how these things are able to then replicate in an awful lot of different different plants because it's using actually the host to move host proteins, to move around in them and not relying on its own. So viroids are a really big problem. There is no treatment. There is no cure. Obviously, if we were able to. You know, make these genetically modified trees. We absolutely could target by rights. There's no question about that, but it's a really sad world that, I mean, if you think about it, Kevin, they would rather that we lose all citrus that we just, that it's the end of oranges and lemons and lines. And. [00:37:00] And, you know, kumquats, imagine life without kumquats and grapefruit. And yeah, don't take me there. I mean, that's a world. I don't know that I want to live in. I know, but seriously, I mean, think of all the things that are made with lemons in line and mojitos and margarita, you're hitting gin and tonics there. I gave you, you got gin and tonics, but, but there's a solution. I mean, that's the crazy thing is, is we have a solution and it's, it's like, we're not allowed to use it. The solution being, making genetically modified trees that will keep the virus from, I mean, keep the bacteria for citrus greening, keep the bacteria from infecting. They know how to do it, but this is the problem. And I talk about this all the time. You know, we have you know and, you know, please take this as intended. We have a human pandemic with a few people that are infected a few deaths from [00:38:00] an unusual pneumonia that show up in the end of 2019. And we initiate project work speed to initiative, to identify ways to use biotechnology, to create novel solutions, to solve that problem. You know, and you know, here we are, a couple of years later, we've still had problems with this. However, we have 60 million infected citrus trees, a very strong likelihood that we will lose the industry in the United States cut consumer choice, especially for those who are challenged financially, who won't be able to afford a, you know, a $10 half gallon of orange juice. And, and so this is the part that bothers me, you know, where, where I live, we grow citrus and we have had no scent. No. Evidence of greening where I live, but I live out in the country in north Florida where we're probably a couple miles from the nearest citrus tree, but it's inevitable. And I guess the, the, the thing that frustrates me is the same thing that frustrates you is that [00:39:00] there were solutions that were proposed back in 2006, seven, eight, you know, maybe things that were early in this podcast solutions that they're actually using citrus. Christy's a virus to deliver proteins that inhibit bacterial growth. But none of this is been deregulated in a meaningful way. And the industry itself says we don't want it making the genetically engineered trees. Well, yeah, I mean, so hopefully our solution will work and hopefully it will be accepted. I mean, that's the question. Will it be accepted? So my, my brother Raphael, who started the business with me he has talked to some of the activists. I mean, it's, this is a G rated program. So I can't say what I really think. And you know, anti GMO, you know, types, and he has to talk to them because I refuse to talk to them. I mean, I will not do [00:40:00] that. So he has to, and he's, you know, queried, what would you, you know, are you gonna, you know, go after us for this? And they said, well no, it's not GMO. So they said, so that's fine. So awful that you're going to have to ask them. And but it's not going to be considered organic because the, the virus that we're using will be slightly modified very, very slightly, but that won't be organic. So. I mean, it, it makes no sense at all that one has to talk to these people, but if you don't talk to them, then you, you take the risk of, of spending millions of dollars and a lot of time coming up with something that's another fantastic solution. And then to have it there, be this huge blow, blow, blow back against it. And so, so we're, we're trying to avoid that because we think that we may have a solution. [00:41:00] Well, that's really good, but, but that's where it starts though, is having those dialogues ahead of time. And you know, this is the problem that the major industries had by saying, well, consumers will love this technology. We just won't worry about it. By having those conversations ahead of time, you help to at least understand the resistance that you'll face. Correct question really is well is minute maid and Tropicana, which Coke and Pepsi. Who, you know, really own the industries. Are they the ones who will, who will Greenlight this? Well, they're supporting, I mean, the the California citrus growers have been a major support of the company. And I think, I think it would be difficult to be supporting this type of solution if they didn't know that it would be accepted. I mean, the fact that, so for, so I get asked this question five, the organic growers, I, you know, do you [00:42:00] have a solution for us if this works for growing conventional citrus? Well, what about us? And we actually might. And so if I just had a brief. One of the really interesting parts of the research on this little thing is what moves it. So this is our little virus that infects kind of everything, and it uses a host protein to move and it turns out the protein that it uses to move is a very interesting protein. It's called flow M protein two. Okay. Another very descriptive name, I guess it was the second protein ever found. In the veins of the plant, but it's, it's a protein that's enigma stick. They really don't know what it does, but it's present at an enormous level in the, in this tissue. And one of the things that it does is when the level gets even higher, it forms the stringy mess, this just stringy stuff, sticky stringy stuff.[00:43:00] And this is what is clogging the veins of the citrus trees and keeping sugars from going down into the roots and killing the plant. And so this is part of what is killing the trees that are infected with the bacteria causing citrus screening. Well, it turns out that when you add our little RNA to this to SAP that contains mostly this protein, all of the preliminary mess goes away within minutes. And instead you form these bundled. Around our little RNA that protect it from enzymes, that that will chew up our NAS. So one of the things that we're thinking is maybe if we can deliver this to enough places in the tree, and we're working on that right now to enough places in the tree, and this gets into the veins, it will suck up all of this PP [00:44:00] to all of this protein. That's clogging the veins. I mean, literally it does it within minutes and maybe it can clear the veins. It might be a way to just completely clear up what's going on and allow sugars to pass down, you know, into the roots again. And maybe it'll save some of these older trees. So that would be an organic solution. So that's what I say is even the, the unmodified little virus that we use might actually be able to do something like that because of. Very unique movement that uses a host protein to move. It's a very first time this has been found for any virus. So it's, everything is very new about this little, this little guy that we work on, but this is pretty exciting because it means that everything that is already there and established could potentially be saved, which is a big difference. Then we're going to have to push all the trees, which, you know, you get a bulldozer and shove them [00:45:00] over. And replant, juvenile trees that take, you know, seven years before they're fully productive. You know, here we're able to take existing stands of trees and treat them and maybe be able to save them. So am I hearing you right on? Yes. I mean, this is what we're trying. This is one of the things that we're trying to do. There's a technology in Australia that allows you to deliver RNs by spraying onto the leaves. And where the RNA is even something possibly as big as this. So something that's half the size of what we have, which is still pretty big, can get into the trees. And so we're hoping that it can get in, be protected by the clay, but then the, this, the clay particles will come off of the RNA. They're known to do that. And at that point, you're sitting in the vein with this RNA that very, very specifically binds this protein. It's the first RNA that the protein wants to bind much better than it binds any other [00:46:00] RNA. And it could just slurp up all of this protein it's possible. I mean, it's an exciting idea. That was my exciting idea. That's an exciting idea. And I, I just can't wait to try it. And so we're, we're hopefully going to try things like this within this next year we're ready. To start trying it. So it's going to be an exciting year and that's why we formed the company because you, you know, it's one thing to get money from the government and frankly, USDA Neefa has been truly wonderful in, in the, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars that they're spending to try to combat citrus, greening. They just don't have anything yet. It's been a very typical disease to, to work on. But you know, because of of USDA and other funding agencies you know, we are, we are ready to start testing very soon. So [00:47:00] I'm excited. It's, you know, w it's it's an exciting time. I wish I was 20 years younger. But it's, it's an exciting time to be doing this research. And I think I've, I've just never going to retire. I'm just going to do this forever because it's fun. I mean, you know, how much fun research is. Yeah, I totally get that. So this is, does this tie in with Dr. Nina Mitter? Yes. In fact, she is going to be collaborating with us on this and what's so, what's so wonderful is that we each bring something unique to each other. Her technology is just truly outstanding. But the problem is they have to keep using it because they use it on not virus, not with viruses, but just RNs all by themselves, which have a finite lifespan. And so she can deliver the RNs, but they have to be delivered every month. And all of a sudden you're spending more than the cost of the tree and the growers don't want that. It's, it's a lot of work. [00:48:00] So what we're by having a virus do this, because once you get the virus in, it's going to stay there for the life of the tree. And it's symptomless in citrus, except for lemon and lime, where you get these beautiful, beautiful gold patterns on the, on a couple of leaves. It's very, it's beautiful, but so maybe it'll, it'll beautify the orchards, but it doesn't cause any other symptoms. And so with her delivery mechanism and our virus melding the two together is just a really exciting way forward, I think, for her technology and for our technical. That's great. And people want to know more about this. Dr. Miller was our guest in, I think 2017, maybe about four years or five years ago this month. And it was episode 69, long time ago in talking biotech series. Oh, pretty cool. So we've gone full circle on that one. Now we're really moving along in the time, but let me tap into one other important [00:49:00] aspect of the work that you've done. And you were actually a scientific advisor for a very popular television series. So could you tell us a little bit about that? Yes. So way way back in ancient times I started watching this TV show called the X-Files and I wasn't expecting anything. It, I watched it because it had a main character that was a woman scientist. But I was, you know, women scientists frankly, all scientists were portrayed in the media really terribly back then. This is, I believe it was like early nineties, 1990s. And, you know, they were always the perpetrators of what was going wrong and the mad scientists. And, and so I didn't have a lot of hope, but I started watching the X-Files and from the first episode I was hooked, I loved that show. And what, it didn't occur to me that the person who was the executive producer of [00:50:00] the show, Chris Carter was the same Chris Carter, who I knew and whose was married to my mother's best friend. And so I'm about halfway through the series when I'm enjoying it tremendously. Chris was lamenting to my mother at a party that he needed desperately to talk to a biologist and he didn't know any. And my mother turned to him and said, what about. And Chris was like, oh gosh, of course. And you know, can you ask her if she wants, if she'll help me. Yes. I'll say no to that. So I was like thrilled and and so Chris called me up and we started talking and I started helping him with the show and I helped him through the first, oh, like five or six seasons on mainly the episodes that he wrote and what we call the mythology episodes. And then in the new, when it, when they had a revival of it for two years, I actually got writing credit for one episode, which was so [00:51:00] exciting. It's a story by Anne Simon. And my friend Margaret Fearon, who's a medical doctor because we needed her and Chris Carter. I got writing credit. Cause usually, you know, your science advisors, you don't get any credit. You do it, you love doing it. You want to make the science real, even though it's a science fiction show, you want to portray the scientists in a favorable light. You want them to be part of the solution and you want them to be talking coherently about science. And, and that's what I did. One thing that people will notice in the X-Files is that, you know, there's no mention of, of, you know, genetic engineering being a problem, or, you know, the evils of GMO or stuff like that. You know, it'd be really easy to do episodes that were, you know, fake it's science fiction. But it was one thing that I told Chris, I said, I don't want any episodes with that. I said, I don't want the show to be part of the problem. And so we did. Do anything, anything like that [00:52:00] and scientists with very, very few exceptions on the show. We're we're the good guys and Scully became Dana Scully became this icon for women's scientists. And so many women went into scientists because of her. Because they were portraying her in, in a wonderful light. She was an exciting character. She was a character who was equal to the guy. She was working with Fox molder. And today it sounds funny. See, hearing that well, of course she was equal, you know, what's wrong, you know, that's how they portray it these days and television, but it was. Portrayed like that back in the nineties. So, so she was a very refreshing character and I was just so happy to be able to give a Gillian Anderson, some really tongue twisting things to say. I actually, I remember watching, I wasn't a huge fan of the X-Files, but I did watch a few [00:53:00] times and I remember them bringing up the Southern. Yes. That was a great episode. Yeah. That was me. And doing it in three hours, by the way. Absolutely. You know, high speed paper towels. In fact, Kevin, what, you know, back then people were finding out that I was part of the show and whenever I would deliver a science seminar. And you, you, you always talk with graduate students. It's a really fun part about going around and giving talks on your research is you, you do lunch with the students. We only had one conversation. It was always about the X-Files and, and not only was it always about the X-Files, it was always about that episode. And they wanted, they all wanted Scully's protocol for how to do a Southern blot in three hours. And so that was it. It was like, that was what they pointed to as being the least scientifically accurate thing on the ship. So it wasn't the, the severed head [00:54:00] communicating with his brother, you know, telepathically. No, that was okay. You know, w it wasn't fluke man, half man, half fluke, you know, half warm. That, that, that, that seemed fine. But a Southern blot in three hours, You know. And so when, when Chris actually wanted me to come up with a way for her to do what she was doing, and I came up with the fact that you would do the Southern blot, he said to me, well, how long would it take? I said, three days, if she's good at it. And he said, no, she has three hours. I said, no, Chris she's three days. And he goes three hours. And so you, you throw up, you know, it's science fiction, you throw up your hands and you said, okay, but I really, really want the other scientist she's talking to, to say not unless we have a blazing hot probe, meaning that a really, really radioactive probe for the Southern block. And the funny thing was, we didn't think we'd get that through the center. Oh, yeah, lazy prob you know, it [00:55:00] was like, you know, well, you need a, you need an, a blazing hot probe and an abundant target specific activity in a reasonable membrane with high. Yes. Well, somehow she managed to do it. And if you notice she had a Sharpie enhanced a blot, don't do that at home or in the lab, but oh, well, but but it was really fun doing it. And the reason I got writing credit on on this other episode is I introduced CRISPR CAS to everyone. And so we were the first television series to enter, to actually have CRISPR on the show. Oh, how cool is that? That was very cool. And I was, so I was, I had, again, it was Chris telling me I had to come up with. With something. And so I'm saying, well, it had to do with modifying the genome and back in the 1970s. Okay. I mean, it's, you know, wait, [00:56:00] it's very complicated, but we did it using CRISPR CAS. We didn't do it. The aliens did it. Okay. Cause we didn't know what CRISPR gas was back in the 1970s, but that's what we did. And so we had to explain it on the show and we literally, we explained it, we had these two scientists talking to each other and they're explaining it. I had to explain it to Chris. Oh. That took days. Before he understood it enough to be able to write and then I had to correct it, but the, but it was so much fun. And you know, you, you hear people talking about that episode when they're, you know, in various science settings about, about CRISPR CAS. So, so that was fun. And then. So when, when CRISPR started to get more kind of airplay, especially on Twitter science and the the people that follow me were always tagging me and saying, I know all about CRISPR. I watched that episode, but I, I actually want to get back to that a little bit. Kevin, I know I'm talking about, I know [00:57:00] all about lithium crystals. I watched star Trek. Oh, okay. So, yeah, but it's really, the reason I actually got onto Twitter was I thought that, you know, how do we, how do we impact you know, w how do we get the truth across to people? And when I first got on Twitter, which was, I don't know, back in like 2004, I don't know. It was like 12, 13. I, what really astonished me more than anything else was seeing how much incorrect science was. You know you know, going out in the Twitter sphere from people who had no business talking about it, I mean, cause it was all wrong and it was lies. I mean, literally lying. They knew that that these were lies and they still said it and I was absolutely astonished by it. And I thought there have to be more science voices with, with the truth. But how do you get people to listen to you as a scientist? I mean, that's tough. [00:58:00] So I thought, well, what did I do it through the X-Files? So I started, I was actually on the set of the X-Files and I thought, well, let me take some pictures back then. They didn't mind now the, no, of course it's like horrible to do it. But back then I took a bunch of pictures of the set and I didn't know if anyone would be interested. So I had like three followers when I started and I started putting out some pictures of the set and it grew to like, like 3000 followers overnight. And these were all X-Files. And so it started with the X-Files, but then I started throwing in science and throwing in about genetically modified plants and that no one has ever gotten ill. No one has ever, you know, from any eating, any genetically modified plants in the 25 years, we've been eating them nothing. And so, you know, isn't that evidence that it's completely safe. [00:59:00] So I started tweeting stuff like this out and re tweeting people like you and, and others who were presenting the facts. And I thought here, all of these ex people will be reading it. And it was amazing how many people said can you direct, you know, direct message me because I have some more questions about this. And of course I said, yes, yes. And, and we started talking about it and people went out and told other people. And then they go out and tell other people, and this is why scientists need to be on Twitter and need to be using social media. Because if we're not there, there's nobody to counter all of this misinformation. That's out there. I mean, you can imagine if, if all of Twitter was just the anti-vaxxers and no one presenting the fact that vaccines are safe and effective, and that's what it seemed like. There was just so many voices on the other side. And so few on the science side, and now it's much better. [01:00:00] It really is much better than it was then. So I, yeah, so I felt really good about, you know, doing that. And so using the X-Files to make people see me as a person and then also using politics. And I just thought here, they're going to see me as a person because of the X-Files. And also that I really can't. I care about, you know, doing the right thing. And I care about you know certain politicians that are trying to do the right thing and help people. And so it shows that you're a caring real person and oh, by the way, a caring, real person can be very much for biotechnology because it's safe and it reduces pollution. And it's I mean, if you're an environmentalist, I just don't see how you can be on this other side, because you're literally for more pesticides and worst pesticides, worst pesticides and, and poisoning [01:01:00] the earth and poisoning the seed. More land use and all of this it's how can you be on that side? I'll say one thing every single year I teach, I teach introduction to biology. So I teach freshmen and every year I'm approached by the pervs, Mary, Mary prude for the Maryland. Oh yeah. And you know who that claimed to be environmentalist and all this, they always want access to the students and they want to come in. They want to make a, you know, give them a talk, get them involved. And I always write this statement to them saying, not over my dead body. Will I allow you in my classroom? I said, you are part of the problem and that you were against, you know, the biotechnology industry and you're for more pollution. And for you know, using up pristine land and, and part of the problem that we're facing with all these emerging pathogens is having to use up [01:02:00] more or less. Because they come out and now it's like, whoa, look at these new plants growing near us. Let's go over there and take a peak. And that's, what's causing a lot of the problems that we're facing and they're part of the problem. They're not part of the solution. So I'm always like no under no circumstance will I allow you to, to come in, but it isn't. But what you're doing is just so important. And so I've been a fan for a long time before I met you, I guess, about five years ago, but I've been a fan for a very long time, and I know what you've gone through on. And I give you just so much credit for it. So in my own little way, I'm also trying to do the same thing. No, that means a lot. I, I think that, you know, when you talk about these groups, their job is to erode the trust in what we do. And I know that when, when we met was actually in October or September of 2015 was right after I got under the bus from T from the New York times and others were piling on. And as I resisted the pile [01:03:00] on it just even got worse. And I think. The the big issue is you have a choice at that time. Do you fold your cards and say, okay, I'll just call it quits now and go back to the lab into the classroom, or do you dial it up and say, we need to find a new level to push back. And certainly you and other folks like you have really helped to build. And this is the key word is to build the trust, build the trust around who the experts really are. And it's, it's a marathon, not a sprint. And by making good episodes of the X-Files that are scientifically accurate by being active in Twitter and social media and answering those questions in thoughtful ways, this is how we change it. You know, another way that we change it, Kevin is that I do teach freshmen. I teach freshmen biology. I always do two lectures on, on a. And at [01:04:00] the beginning of those lectures, I quizzed the students about their feelings and it's it's 95% against and 5% for, and after the lectures, it's a complete turnaround. It's 95% for five against. And, and I used to teach this when I was at university of Massachusetts, I taught this honor seminar and I let the students do all the presentations. I just gave some very basic facts on how you make genetically modified plants with Agrobacterium. I just went through it exactly, you know, very, just methodically going through it. I left it for all of the students to do the presentations. And there were students who were four and students who were against and they had to look it up. And by the end of the class, I mean, it was virtually 100% of the students. And that was not how it started. We're wildly enthusiastic. About biotechnology. I [01:05:00] mean, complete turnaround. Again, you present students with the facts, you literally present them with the facts and, and they see it. And you're just being honest with them and they go to the websites and they're saying, how can these websites, how does, how can they write this when it's so wrong? I mean, they've done the research themselves and they know that what they're they're seeing in these other websites are lies and they questioned me and they stay after class. I usually, after those lectures, 50 or 60 students stay after class. And when the lectures are over, those GMO lectures are over. They literally sit there in their seats and don't budge. I mean, it's time to leave. The next class is coming in a big lecture hall and they don't. Oh, yeah. They're like, they're like, everyone's been lying to them. They're sitting there, you know, realizing how much they've been lied to. And a lot of it is by high school teachers, which is so [01:06:00] sad. Well, well, my world though, I mean, and if I can jump in on this is that I have had so many students over the course of the years, and maybe you've seen this too because you teach freshmen. I think that students today are so much different than they were when I first started in the university at 2002. And that the ones today are very concerned about values, about how they leave this earth about, and then people will disagree with me all day. They're say, oh, the most narcissistic selfie generation. I think these are folks who really do care and they're not worried so much about. You know, dollars and Alex Keaton, you know, aspirations, like when I was in college, these are students who really want to make an impact. And when they realize that they've been deceived and they realize how the tools of technology can feed the insecure could have tremendous environmental impact could in a positive way, could help farmers and could [01:07:00] even aid consumers in providing more choices. This is a no-brainer for them. And, and this has been I'm starting a new class in fall this year, a critical evaluation of agriculture, medical technology, and it's going to be sophomores. And we're going to talk about critical thinking and how you get. And I think it's going to be one of the most fun classes I ever teach, and I am totally looking forward to it. I hope it's a big lecture hall because I think a lot of students would want to take it. I wish it was. I'm starting out with, I think 50, I kept it at 50, but, but next year I probably should do it for a hundred thousand because I, this is where we need to go. We need to demonstrate to people how they're being fooled, not just in genetic engineering, but in issues of COVID in vaccination. And, you know, today I, all I did was comment on someone's thing that on someone's post, that ivermectin is a great compound for toleration, for how it's tolerated and it's low toxicity, but [01:08:00] it doesn't work against COVID-19 and, you know, 5,000 replies later, I haven't even looked at it yet, but I think what, what I'm, what, what we're doing by, by teaching the next generation. Critical thinking and trying to separate the lies from the truth. I wish that professors all over this country and high school teachers all over this country were doing the same. And if there were, if, if everyone was also putting a couple of lectures in to these large freshmen classes and you know, that are being, you know, classes on molecular cellular, cellular biology, things like this, where this fits in so well we could make even a bigger difference. So if there are people who are listening to this podcast who are teachers teach it, I mean, let's students hear the [01:09:00] truth. Let's students investigated themselves, let them do it. That's the best way to do it. You know, it's not you trying to force some thinking on them, it's them actually going out and getting the. And becoming absolutely astonished about how much they've been misled. I get, I get said things like, I can't believe you're on that side. You know, w what side? This 'cause, I I'm, I'm politically liberal. I mean, I'm, I shouldn't be on the side of the truth. It's like, that doesn't make any sense. Well, there's so many interesting dynamics in this, and then you, and I need to talk again just about that. But I, you know, I like to keep this thing into a normal consumable timeframe, so I guess we're kind of running out of time, but if people wanted to follow you online, where would they find you on Twitter? I met okay. At Anna Liz, cause my middle name's Elizabeth. So it's a N N E a [01:10:00] L I Z analysts one with a one after. And you can find me on Twitter and I would love for people to follow me. I think that that you'll find some very interesting things. You'll, you'll, you'll have to put up with some X-Files stuff. But but a lot of really cool science as well. I mean really wonderful science. A lot of it is about plants, but plants are really cool, as you will know, and I will concur. It's an excellent follow. And so you should follow Dr. Simon, please do that. And most of all, thank you very much for joining me today. And I hope you come back soon and we'll talk about this idea of critical thinking and how do we better educate people when we have the information at our fingertips, when we don't know how to always know how to put it together, I'd be happy to come back. Yeah, let's do it again soon. So thank you very much for listening to the talking biotech podcast. Thank you for writing reviews and for following us on our [01:11:00] new collaborative format. And we'll talk to you again. The talking biotech podcast is brought to you by collaborate. If you've ever struggled to easily find your research data, or have you tried other electronic laboratory notebooks and found them to be too slow, too clunky, too. Non-intuitive or these are the problems that collaborative was designed to address. All collaborative features, including note-taking task management, inventory protocols, even collaboration, they are forever free for up to 10 users. So there's absolutely no risk in trying it out. Learn [email protected] That's spelled C O L a B R a dot a P P. The talking biotech podcast represents the personal views of [01:12:00] Dr. Kevin Volta and my guests. They are not to be confused with the views of the university of Florida it's fact that these established students and in fact is a 100% independent effort from the university. No university endorsement should be implied. Thank you for listening to the talking biotech podcast. And we'll talk to you again next week.


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