New research underway at the University of Helsinki (UH), Finland, suggests that viruses can be classified in a completely new way based on viral structures. A better understanding of how viruses work can help open up new applications for viruses in the field of synthetic biology, for instance. These hypotheses are being investigated by Academy Professor Dennis Bamford and Academy Research Fellow Minna Poranen within the Programme on Molecular Virology at the UH Department of Biosciences and the Institute of Biotechnology. Working with funding from the Academy of Finland, Bamford and Poranen study virus classification and virus utilisation as a tool to support synthetic biology.

The research project, headed by Academy Professor Bamford, is exploring whether the entire virosphere can be organised to a relatively small number of virus lineages.

"Traditionally, the host organism is a key criterion in virus classification. However, our own research has shown that structurally similar viruses can infect very different hosts, such as humans and the E. coli bacterium. Our method to classify viruses is based on viral structures. It challenges traditional virus taxonomy and helps us observe extensive similarities between different types of viruses," explains Bamford. Observation of structural similarities between viruses that infect both humans and bacteria will enable the researchers to use nonpathogenic model viruses to investigate the structures and functional mechanisms of viruses.

Viruses harnessed to benefit plant production and the pharmaceutical industry

A thorough knowledge of viral mechanisms and viral molecular machines is a prerequisite to be able to utilise viral components in synthetic biology.

"We've learned how to assemble infectious viral particles in vitro from purified virus proteins and genome segments. Such systems provide very detailed information on the assembly pathways and functional mechanisms of viral particles, which in turn is a prerequisite for the controlled use of viral processes," says Minna Poranen.

As part of the Academy of Finland's Academy Programme Synthetic Biology, the scientists of the Programme on Molecular Virology have produced synthetic cells containing molecular machines derived from bacterial viruses.

"All viruses contain either DNA or RNA, that is, a nucleic acid encoding the genetic information. Viral nucleic acid may be single- or double-stranded. By utilising viral molecular machines, we've been able to produce cells that contribute to efficient production of double-stranded RNA. Such RNA molecules potentially have widespread application not only in plant and animal production but in medicine, too," explains Poranen.

The team has successfully produced synthetic cell lineages for efficient production of dsRNA molecules, which is a key requirement for the wider application of RNA molecules. At present, the researchers are looking to develop new RNA-based plant virus vaccines to replace traditional plant protection agents. The goal is to make food production more efficient and environmentally friendly and to improve the quality of food.