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New Virus in North America Threatens Major Crops

Apr 10, 2015 12:49 PM EDT

A new virus has been discovered in North America, and it's leaving its victims covered in splotchy discolored paths and with little energy to stand. However, it's not people we're talking about, but grasses. A new viral infection for grasses has been identified in the United States, and experts say there is reason to be worried that it will jump to some of the country's most important food crops.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Archives of Virologywhich details how first author Bright Agindotan discovered a clutch of switchgrass which exhibited the common characteristics of a viral infection, but tested negative for all known viruses.

The new virus, which was inevitably identified, has since been tentatively named switchgrass mosaic-associated virus 1 (SgMaV-1). It's a member of the mastrevirus genus, a group of DNA viruses, which are known to be responsible for decimating yields in staple food crops (including corn, wheat and sugarcane) throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia. However, before now, this dangerous virus was never seen in North America.

As things stand, we known of SgMaV-1 is infecting only switchgrass - that tall-tick grass used to line pathways and fill massive flowerpots in residential areas. However, the New World isn't out of the woods just yet.

"My fear is that this virus is in corn and wheat, and we are not even aware of it," Agindotan said in a recent release. "It's like when you are sick and go to the hospital, but the doctors say nothing is wrong with you because they only test for what they know."

And this mastrevirus is NOT something that they know. Unfortunately, Agindotan added, all we really do know is that it exists.

"We don't know the impact of this virus on the biomass yield of the energy crops," he explained. "We don't know if this virus will affect cereal crops. We don't know the specific leafhoppers that transmit it, assuming it is transmitted by leafhoppers like other members of the mastrevirus genus."

He goes on to say that they don't even know where it originated, but because inspection of imported plants revolves around known pests and infections, it's very possible the virus was overlooked after crossing into North American boarders.

To answer these questions, Agindotan and his colleagues plan to run tests in the future, infecting healthy plants with the new viral strain and observing how the infection progresses.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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