Student Research Spotlight - Kaixi Zhao

Posted: June 8, 2015

This is the 8th of thirteen short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Fleshing Out Resistance: Scientists Combat the Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus
by Shelley A. Whitehead

Being a fruit but being left out of a fruit salad, the tomato is consistently excluded from the in-crowd. But, that’s not all! Tomatoes also run the risk of falling victim to a vector-borne disease: the Tomato spotted wilt virus, which can reduce output of crops. This virus not only threatens our selection of produce in the neighborhood grocery store, but also the economy.  

Kaixi Zhao, Ph.D. graduate student in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, is studying this virus. Transmitted by western flower thrips, the Tomato spotted wilt virus causes a variety of symptoms, including necrotic rings on the leaves and the fruit, rendering it inedible.
“Tomato spotted wilt virus infects over 1000 plant species and causes significant economic damage to many agronomic and horticultural crops,” says Zhao.

Zhao, studying in Dr. Cristina Rosa’s lab, explains that current research displays how the three-segmented genome of the virus has the potential to re-order its segments and to create new strains that can infect plants that are usually resistant to this virus. Simply put, the virus can change itself in order to infect tomatoes that would otherwise be resistant to its infection.

“Imagine you are a farmer with a field of virus resistant tomatoes. A few miles down the road, a neighboring farmer also has a tomato field, but her tomatoes are infected with the resistance-breaking strain of the virus. Thrips suck on the leaves of her plants and carry the virus to your field, infecting your plants with this new strain.  Your tomatoes are now at risk of developing the virus,” Zhao explains, detailing why this resistant strain is a serious problem for tomatoes and tomato growers.

With the Earth’s population rapidly increasing, finding ways to combat these plant diseases and to provide enough food for everyone is critical. Plus, ketchup makes everything taste better.