New field of sociovirology headed by UCD professor studies importance of social interactions between viruses

New field of sociovirology headed by UCD professor studies importance of social interactions between viruses

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Assistant professor makes novel discoveries about necessity of social interactions between viruses for reproduction, evolution

Viruses are more codependent and social than one may think — Samuel Díaz-Muñoz, a UC Davis assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, studies these interactions and their relation to virus evolution. Through this research, Díaz-Muñoz hopes to learn more about how to better fight infections with treatments that revolve around viruses’ tendencies to socially interact.

“I tend to call … my work the ‘social lives of viruses,’ which is basically how viruses interact with each other, change their genetic makeup or evolution and, ultimately, how they interact with their host,” Díaz-Muñoz said. “We look at viruses as organisms, not as disease agents, which they are, but we are more interested in what the viruses are doing and why.” 

In his lab, which is entering its third year, Díaz-Muñoz uses the social evolution theory to understand the behavior between bacterial and viral groups. It has been known for some time now that viruses live in groups, but little has been studied about how they coordinate and interact, according to Díaz-Muñoz. 

In 2010, a paper coined the term “sociomicrobiology,” which first explored the interactions between microbes, and illustrated how the field was changing. In 2017, Díaz-Muñoz collaborated with two other professors — Rafael Sanjuán of the University of Valencia and Stuart West of the University of Oxford — to write a paper coining the term “sociovirology,” which encompasses the interactions that occur between viruses for survival. 

As the principal investigator in the lab, Díaz-Muñoz leads the research program, which is  comprised of three post doctorates, one graduate student and an associate specialist, through various studies and projects. He is in charge of obtaining funding, ensuring projects are executed correctly and safely, as well as mentoring the students and other researchers to reach their goals. 

“It’s the search for knowledge, academia, and research that is exciting,” Díaz-Muñoz said. “We have just started studying viruses in this way.” 

In the labs, researchers conduct experiments in which they create infections with many different types of viruses. Their goal is to see how much genetic exchange occurs between two viruses and what their offspring look like, Díaz-Muñoz said. Sequencing is required to determine how many genes each offspring virus gets from each parent virus. 

“Most studies in virology by necessity are just with one virus because researchers want to control all your variables,” Díaz-Muñoz said. “In reality, out there, there’s hundreds of different strains of viruses interacting, and they go far beyond one or two, so in our lab we find patterns for all variables with multiple types of viruses.” 

In Díaz-Muñoz’s lab, he said that because scientific tools are becoming more sophisticated, researchers can perform novel experiments like infecting and isolating single cells. 

“We can look at treatment strategies in a very different way,” Díaz-Muñoz said. “Instead of creating a particular drug that targets a particular part of the virus, we can actually use viral competition to help.”

Díaz-Muñoz clarified that viruses are not actually consciously thinking or aware of their actions. When researchers refer to them as being selfish or cheating, they are describing a reproduction strategy viruses use to best pass on their traits. For virologists, acting “socially” means that one virus affects another’s reproduction, as stated in an article by UC Davis. Successful social interactions aid in survival, while unsuccessful attempts could result in poor outcomes like death. 

Many of Díaz-Muñoz’s findings from his research were documented in the paper published in 2017 with West and Sanjuán.

“That collaboration was mostly an intellectual collaboration,” Díaz-Muñoz said. “With [West] at Oxford, he’s very interested in social evolution theory, and he had been thinking about its implications for viruses. [Sanjuán] has been studying viruses for a long time. He’s a proper virologist and he’s the only other person devoting his lab to sociovirology.”

Their collaboration included getting together to study the social interactions occurring among viruses, Díaz-Muñoz said. This paper explains their new understanding of the social relationships of viruses in relation with the social evolution theory. 

“That paper was applying concepts that we usually apply to animals, to look at things like cooperation and altruism, and examining how they apply to viruses,” West said. “This allows us to better understand the success and dynamics of viruses.”

With the help of West and Sanjuán’s virus studies, Díaz-Muñoz was able to legitimize many of his findings.

“[The social evolution theory] is a mathematical, legitimate theory with decades of work put into it,” Díaz-Muñoz said. “We think this is an exciting field and people should pay attention to it. Our understanding about viruses may be changed.” 

Díaz-Muñoz said that while only him and Sanjuán have labs dedicated to studying sociovirology, other scientists may be doing similar research without using the same name. 

“I did not invent this,” Díaz-Muñoz said. “People have been talking about it since 1999 at least, but it has always been this niche area and now it is becoming more mainstream and incorporated. Nobody thinks about viruses without other viruses, and not many think about viruses without their hosts, and I want it to be more like that.”

Both West and Díaz-Muñoz said they hope their work will open up this area of research for other scientists to investigate. Díaz-Muñoz said their studies can help create new vaccines that beneficially take into account the social interactions between viruses, providing alternate treatment options for human use. 

“Very few people had previously thought about viruses as cooperative social organisms,” West said. “[Díaz-Muñoz] is doing something really novel and different. It was very exciting to get involved in that.”

Written by: Margo Rosenbaum — science@theaggie.org