Ice House Interview

Interview: Friends with (Potential) Benefits for Mankind

These Rice University researchers are going viral—but not in the way you think.

By Catherine Matusow September 30, 2014 Published in the October 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Yizhi Jane Tao and Weiwei Zhong have a remarkable amount in common. The two friends both live in Pearland, and both are originally from China. Each is a mom. They both love to grow vegetables—“last week she gave me a squash, and I gave her some snow peas,” says Tao. They both love to laugh, and they’ve even shared the same dream: that someone, someday, would discover a virus that preyed upon nematodes, or roundworms, the world’s most common animal. 

To back up: Tao and Zhong are both researchers at Rice although, in a rare moment of asymmetry, Tao is a structural biologist studying viruses, and Zhong a geneticist studying nematodes. Given the bureaucracies of science, the two might never have worked together if it weren’t for a French researcher who, in 2011, discovered something in an apple in a French orchard, something that came to be known as the Orsay virus, something that Tao and Zhong had long dreamed of: a virus that preys on nematodes—the species Caenorhabditis elegans in particular. When Zhong heard this, she was at Rice in charge of what is affectionately known as The Worm Lab. “I told Jane, ‘We’re going to get it,’” says Zhong, telling us this not in The Worm Lab but while seated next to Tao at West Alabama Ice House. 

When Zhong called to ask the French lab for the virus, though, she received the unhappy news that several other researchers had already requested it. The race to determine Orsay’s structure was on. “She’s very competitive,” Zhong says of Tao. Both dissolve into laughter. “She said, ‘Just get it, we’ll solve it faster than the other groups,’ and she did.” In August, Tao and Zhong, along with colleagues at the Baylor College of Medicine and Washington University in St. Louis, published the first paper outlining the virus’s crystalline structure, which Tao describes variously as “a little hairy ball” and a perfect sphere covered in 60 spikes. 

The hairy ball’s victim, the millimeter-long C. elegans, was already a popular worm among biologists, the first multicellular animal to have its entire genome mapped. “It’s convenient,” explains Zhong, who half-jokingly suggests that she came to work with nematodes by a process of elimination: “It was down to yeast, flies, or worms. Yeast was single cell, not as fun. Then my choice was down to flies and worms, and I didn’t like the maggots. So—worms.” 

 “It’s a stomach flu,” says Zhong of the Orsay virus, which sickens C. elegans but doesn’t kill it. And believe it or not, the interaction that produces a tummy ache–suffering worm could well have applications for humans, who already share 8,000 genes with C. elegans anyway. It’s a relationship not unlike that of Zhong and Tao. In fact, everyone in the group is so copacetic, it’s conceivable that the quartet might make some real contributions to science’s understanding of host-virus interaction. Each time Zhong mutates worms’ genes or Tao alters the virus, they will learn more.

And there are other potential practical outcomes. As the two gain understanding of how the Orsay structurally attaches to a worm, they might be able to alter it and make it target other, more menacing worms. “C. elegans is a nice nematode,” explains Zhong, “but there are lots that are nasty and parasitic. They infect humans, cattle, and sheep. It’s very bad. Maybe we could engineer a virus that kills those parasitic nematodes but not anything else.” 

“We are going to generate new viruses,” Tao says, so thrilled by the prospect that we find ourselves momentarily alarmed. “Don’t worry, only for worms,” adds her friend, laughing again. “Not for humans.”

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