Zika virus (Illustration: David S. Goodsell, courtesy The RCSB PDB “Molecule of the Month” series 10.2210/ rcsb_pdb/mom_2016_5)

Viruses influence life at every scale, from single-celled microorganisms up to large plants and animals. Some viruses coexist peacefully and even contribute to the evolution of their hosts, but we more often hear about the dangerous ones: pathogenic viruses that infect cells and kidnap their machinery, threatening the tissues and organs of the multicellular host. Hosts spread the viruses to other hosts, leading to widespread pandemics and public health crises.

But researchers who study viruses typically focus only on one scale, without detailed knowledge of the big picture, says molecular biologist Santiago Elena, an SFI External Professor based at the Institute for Plant Molecular and Cell Biology, in Valencia, Spain. Molecular virologists may be unaware of the population-level effects, and epidemiologists unaware of the viral dynamics within infected individual cells, tissues, and organs of single hosts.

“We’re studying them at different scales but basically ignoring what is happening above and below,” says Elena, whose research focuses on the evolution of viruses within plant hosts.

To start that conversation, Elena has organized Integrating Critical Phenomena and Multi-Scale Selection in Virus Evolution, a working group to be held at SFI November 19-20. He has invited leading viral ecologists, epidemiologists, and experimental molecular virologists from around the world to share experimental findings with theorists, and vice versa.

The working group is designed for the scientists to learn about virology at other scales, but Elena hopes the meeting motivates a larger, multidisciplinary effort toward a comprehensive view of how viral dynamics at one level can influence phenomena at other levels. “This is the time to start discussing whether it is possible to make all these things contribute to a new picture,” he says.