Origin and Evolution of Viroids and Viroid-like Satellite RNAs

  • Theodor O. Diener


Viroids, the smallest and simplest agents of infectious disease, cause a number of economically important diseases of crop plants. Present evidence indicates that most of these diseases originated recently (in the 20th century) by chance transfer of viroids from endemically infected wild plants or by use of viroid-infected germplasm during plant breeding. Modern agricultural practices, such as widespread monoculture of genetically identical plants, and worldwide distribution of planting material, has made it possible for the pathogens to maintain themselves in the crop plants and to conquer new territories. Phylogenetic analysis of their nucleotide sequences indicates that viroids and satellite RNAs represent a monophyletic group, with all but the two self-cleaving viroids forming one cluster and the satellite RNAs another. The two self-cleaving viroids are phylogenetically distant from either cluster; they may represent ancestral forms. Results from site-directed mutagenesis experiments indicate that, upon exposure to selective pressures, viroids can evolve extremely rapidly, with another, fitter, component of the quasi-species often becoming dominant within days or weeks. This extreme plasticity of their nucleotide sequences establishes viroids as the most rapidly evolving biological system known.

Key words

viroid diseases phylogeny disease ecology epidemiology quasispecies 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Theodor O. Diener
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Center for Agricultural BiotechnologyUniversity of Maryland Biotechnology InstituteCollege ParkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Plant BiologyUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA

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