Virus Biology at Richfield Farmers Market

By: Amy Kendig

While viruses can cause scary diseases in humans, they are not always “bad”. For example, viruses can help plants withstand extreme conditions and humans fight against diseases. Viruses infect organisms from bacteria to elephants, and are important parts of ecosystems around the world. Last week at the Richfield Farmer’s Market, we talked about what viruses are made out of, who they can infect, and how they are transmitted.

Visitors used microscopes to observe aphids feeding on oat leaves. Aphids are one way that viruses can spread through a crop field or wild grassland. They carry the viruses that I study (Barley Yellow Dwarf Viruses) in order to understand how nutrients in the soil affect plant diseases.

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Cross-section drawing of an aphid feeding on plant tissue. It is transmitting viruses known as Barley Yellow Dwarf Viruses (BYDV). Figure source: apsnet.org

While we can’t see viruses with our eyes, scientists have used powerful microscopes to figure out what they look like. Based on these pictures, young scientists built their own models of viruses. They used pipe cleaners to make DNA and Play-Doh to make protein coats because these are two main parts of a virus particle. We talked about what DNA is and how viruses can get inside of hosts. Once we figured out the basics, creativity took over and entirely new viruses were created!

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Finally, visitors played a matching game to figure out which viruses are transmitted by which vectors to certain hosts. They learned that the names of viruses can be associated with the name of the host and that there are many types of vectors.

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One of my favorite parts of Market Science is learning from the people that stop by. For instance, one visitor taught me that mosquito saliva can act as an anesthetic (causing numbness) when biting humans. This can make disease transmission more successful because we are less likely to swat them away. I spoke with another visitor about treatments for rabies virus that are used where he grew up in India. It was interesting to think about how there are multiple perspectives on virus (and other) biology, and the science I used for these Market Science activities comes from just one of these perspectives.

 

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