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Proof by synthesis of Tobacco mosaic virus

Bret Cooper

Author Affiliations

Soybean Genomics and Improvement Laboratory, USDA-ARS, Beltsville, MD 20705, USA

Genome Biology 2014, 15:R67  doi:10.1186/gb-2014-15-5-r67

Published: 12 May 2014



Synthetic biology is a discipline that includes making life forms artificially from chemicals. Here, a DNA molecule was enzymatically synthesized in vitro from DNA templates made from oligonucleotides representing the text of the first Tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) sequence elucidated in 1982. No infectious DNA molecule of that seminal reference sequence exists, so the goal was to synthesize it and then build viral chimeras.


RNA was transcribed from synthetic DNA and encapsidated with capsid protein in vitro to make synthetic virions. Plants inoculated with the virions did not develop symptoms. When two nucleotide mutations present in the original sequence, but not present in most other TMV sequences in GenBank, were altered to reflect the consensus, the derivative synthetic virions produced classic TMV symptoms. Chimeras were then made by exchanging TMV capsid protein DNA with Tomato mosaic virus (ToMV) and Barley stripe mosaic virus (BSMV) capsid protein DNA. Virus expressing ToMV capsid protein exhibited altered, ToMV-like symptoms in Nicotiana sylvestris. A hybrid ORF6 protein unknown to nature, created by substituting the capsid protein genes in the virus, was found to be a major symptom determinant in Nicotiana benthamiana. Virus expressing BSMV capsid protein did not have an extended host range to barley, but did produce novel symptoms in N. benthamiana.


This first report of the chemical synthesis and artificial assembly of a plant virus corrects a long-standing error in the TMV reference genome sequence and reveals that unnatural hybrid virus proteins can alter symptoms unexpectedly.