New UMaine research hub to focus on Potato Virus Y

Greater understanding of the biology of one of the most destructive plant viruses to potato crops will be the focus of a research hub at the University of Maine that is part of a new $6.1 million institute focused on virology and host-virus dynamics.

The National Science Foundation awarded the grant to the University of Arkansas to establish the Host-Virus Evolutionary Dynamics Institute. Hub sites will be located at the University of Maine, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Ouachita Baptist University and Universidad Interamericana in Puerto Rico.

Scientists will study multiple virus systems across all domains of life — Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya. The goal is to establish fundamental “rules of life,” or laws of virology, that apply to all viruses — or at least large sets of virus systems.

The institute will be led by Ruben Michael Ceballos, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Arkansas, collaborating with an interdisciplinary team of geneticists, virologists, ecosystem ecologists and mathematicians. The UMaine hub will be led by E. Han Tan, assistant professor of plant genetics.

UMaine will receive more than $446,800 to fund research led by Tan and Peter Nelson, forestry ecology director at the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park. Their research team will use hyperspectral methods to study Potato Virus Y (PVY), strains of which in Maine and elsewhere result in severe losses in crop yield. The researchers will also use genomic tools at UMaine’s Maine Center for Genetics in the Environment to study PVY in potatoes. 

“Not only will our research test a novel method to detect PVY-infected potato, which costs the potato industry substantial amounts of money for lab testing each year, we hope to better understand the arms race between PVY and potato which will be integrated with other viral systems under investigation at this institute,” says Tan.

Tan is a co-principal investigator on the NSF grant, along with other hub leaders: Anissa Buckner, professor and chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; Nathan Reyna, associate professor at Ouachita Baptist University; and Elizabeth Padilla, assistant professor at La Universidad Interamericana.

Researchers at the Host-Virus Evolutionary Dynamics Institute will study disparate virus systems across domains of life, noted the University of Arkansas in its news release announcing the NSF award. While viruses are ubiquitous across all domains of life, the diversity of the virosphere presents a challenge in establishing universal laws to which all viruses adhere. 

Using a common experimental approach, data from studies of all virus systems will be compared and integrated to generate Rules of Life that drive variables such as species jump, virus harbor state, changes in transmission rates and emergence of highly virulent virus strains. Rules of Life is one of the National Science Foundation’s 10 Big Ideas for pioneering research that will serve the nation’s future.

“By studying viruses in potatoes using statistical modeling of reflectance scans, we can potentially provide a means to rapidly and easily detect and manage viral outbreaks,” says Nelson, who also is a faculty associate in UMaine’s School of Forest Resources.

Contact: Margaret Nagle,