Year of Publication


Document Type





Plant Pathology

First Advisor

Peter D. Nagy


RNA recombination is a major factor driving viral evolution and contributing to new disease outbreaks. Therefore, understanding the mechanism of RNA recombination can help scientists to develop longer lasting antiviral strategies. Tombusviruses are one of the best model RNA viruses to study RNA virus recombination. My goals were to dissect the mechanism of tombusviral RNA recombination. To do so, in my thesis, I describe my results on the roles of (i) the viral replicase and the viral RNA templates; and (ii) the effect of host factors on tombusvirus recombination events. To study the mechanism of RNA recombination without the influence of selection pressure on the emerging recombinants, we developed an in vitro RNA recombination assay based on viral RNA templates and purified viral replicase preparations. Using this in vitro assay, we demonstrated that replicase driven template switching is the mechanism of recombination, whereas RNA ligation seems less likely to be a major mechanism. In addition, we also studied the role of RNA substrates, in more detail. Our results showed that viral replicase preferred to use functional RNA domains in the acceptor RNAs over random switching events. Host factors may also play important roles in RNA recombination. Using yeast as a model system for studying replication and recombination of a tombusvirus replicon, we identified 9 host genes affecting tombusvirus RNA recombination. Separate deletion of five of these genes enhanced generation of novel viral RNA recombinants. Further studies on one of these genes, XRN1, a 5-3 exoribonuclease, indicated that it might be involved in degradation of tombusvirus RNAs. Lack of Xrn1p resulted in accumulation of truncated (partially degraded) replicon RNAs, which became good templates for RNA recombination. To further study Xrn1p, we overexpressed Xrn4p of Arabidopsis thaliana, a functional analogue of the yeast Xrn1p, in Nicotiana benthamiana plants. After superinfecting the Xrn4p-overexpressing N. benthamiana with tombusvirus, truncated tombusvirus genomic and subgenomic RNA1 were observed. Some of the identified tombusvirus variants were infectious in protoplasts and could systemically infected N. benthamiana plants. Overall, this is the first report that a single host gene can affect rapid viral evolution and RNA recombination.