Viruses are molecular thieves that take from their hosts under the cloak of darkness. But now a Virginia Tech scientist has found a way to not only track viral hijackers, but also to potentially stop them from replicating.

The discovery has broad-ranging applications in stopping viral outbreaks such as hepatitis C in humans and a number of viruses in plants and animals because it applies to many viruses in the largest category of viral classes — positive-strand RNA viruses.

“Even though these viruses infect very different hosts, they all replicate similarly across the board, so what we learn from one virus can potentially be translated to control viruses in agricultural production as well as human health,” said Xiaofeng Wang, an assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Wang’s findings could target any number of plant viruses by developing sprays to halt the virus, which would save the agricultural sectors millions of dollars.

Wang used the brome mosaic virus to study how viral infections start. He found that by inhibiting host lipid cell synthesis, the viral replication stopped.

Wang also collaborated with researchers to study how human viruses like hepatitis C and poliovirus regulate host lipid synthesis. He found that viral replication behaved in the same way as plant viruses.

Developing a drug delivery system to combat the hepatitis C virus has vast ramifications for human health. The system would be much more nimble at treating viral outbreaks than slow-moving vaccines and could play a crucial role in halting the debilitating infection that affects 3.5 million people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.