“When most people think of viruses, they think of getting sick…”
Dr. Ken Stedman’s observation is probably not far from true as is his summation that: “…but in my opinion viruses have a ‘bad rap’. They’re an integral part of life as we know it.”
While it is true that viruses are invasive, requiring host cells to reproduce, frequently destroying their hosts in the process, and that viruses can cause sickness and even death, most viruses don’t infect humans, some have helped create the living conditions essential to life as we know it on earth, and the power of a handful of viruses has been harnessed to create drugs and vaccines.
Since they were first detected in the 1880s, over 5,000 species of virus have been discovered. Dr. Stedman, Professor of Biology at PSU, studies viruses in extreme environments and has discovered a remarkable group of viruses formed by a RNA-DNA recombination event. A paper coauthored by Stedman and Geoffrey Diemer, “A novel virus genome discovered in an extreme environment suggests recombination between unrelated groups of RNA and DNA viruses'” details their findings. Stedman and Diemer recently received the prestigious BioMedCentral research award for the paper which was published in Biology Direct (and is freely available online). Dr. Stedman is also the chair of NASA’s Virus Focus Group, a group of NASA supported researchers from around the world whose efforts aim to increase understanding of astrovirology.
“We know that life on our planet and viruses are inextricably connected to each other in extreme environments and elsewhere. So it stands to reason that where you find viruses, be it on Earth or in the oceans on Europa, you’ll find life. Some of our work focuses on how we’re going to go about detecting those viruses,” Stedman said.
While viruses are one of the dominant organisms floating through space on this blue rock with us, scientists like Dr. Stedman haven’t had long to study them. It was only with the advent of the electron microscope and other high tech tools that scientists could really start taking a serious look at viruses. Since the 1930s scientists have learned and discovered much, but questions still remain about how viruses evolve over time.
One way to perhaps learn more about how viruses have coevolved with the rest of life on earth might be to find and study them in the fossil record.
“We do our research in extreme environments,” Dr. Stedman said. “In places like geothermally heated hot springs where temperatures are really high and the water is really acidic. Viruses in these places are exposed to high concentrations of silica, which is why we thought this might be the place to look to see if a virus could be fossilized in silica. What we found was that if we left them in those conditions for too long we lost any kind of signal from them, so silica probably wasn’t a good place to search for fossilized viruses. Still, we learned some interesting things.”
Drs. Stedman and Laidler discovered that the method they devised to coat viruses in silica could be used to preserve those viruses in a way that they could be reactivated at a later time without losing their infectivity. Furthermore, the team found that coating viruses in silica protected them from desiccation, a treatment which inactivates most viruses.
These discoveries provided clues to the answers for some long-standing scientific mysteries surrounding viruses. One such mystery is how a virus with a particular genome could turn up in North America, Europe and Asia. Dr. Stedman’s findings suggest that what might have happened is that the virus could have been coated in silica, aerosolized and blown around the world.
In order to explore the potential of using silica to preserve vaccines, Stedman and Laidler began a collaboration with the Providence Cancer Center to test the immune response of mice that were injected with a silica-preserved smallpox vaccine. With the results of their experiments proving positive, Stedman approached the office of Innovation & Intellectual Property (IIP) at Portland State with his method of preserving viruses in silica. In January of 2013, IIP filed a provisional patent application on Dr. Stedman’s novel method for preserving viruses.
In the future, Dr. Stedman’s work could prove vital to the transportation of antiviral drugs and vaccines to the regions of the world where they are needed the most and the preservation and formulation of vaccines in general. This is a demonstration of how basic research on benign viruses in volcanic hot springs may lead to better treatment for debilitating disease.
To learn more about Dr. Stedman visit his webpage. Also check out The Edge of Life trailer below.