The genetic material that has created a world pandemic and disrupted lives and economies around the world is incredibly tiny.

Even looking for it in a very good microscope wouldn’t be too helpful — Under high magnification, the nucleic acids that contain the coronavirus’ approximately 30,000 bits of deadly instructions for making people sick just look like a bunch of random strings.

“The power of RNA is looking at the sequence of nucleotides,” said Courtney Gardner, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “The actual sequence can tell you what you want to know.”

Gardner and a team of WSU researchers have begun looking for coronavirus RNA and studying how the virus persists and behaves in the environment – information that could help improve understanding of its pathogenicity.

Researchers know little about the virus’ survival in the environment. Some have recently found that virus levels in wastewater increase in areas about a week before infections rise, providing a potential indicator of disease spikes that is independent of inconsistent testing availability.

Because they only have a single strand of genetic information, RNA viruses such as the coronavirus tend to break into pieces easily and be less stable in the environment. The new coronavirus has a tricky genetic proof-reading mechanism and mutates at a low rate compared to many other viruses, making it harder to predict how it’s going to behave over time.

Closeup of Courtney Gardner
Courtney Gardner

“Right now, we continue to know very little about the virus,” Gardner said. “Understanding how it behaves in the environment will help us get a better idea of whether it is going to stick around and persist or how much it will recede.”

While working on her PhD, Gardner spent a lot of time hunting for the tiny bits of RNA strands in the environment – in that case, RNA information encoded in genetically modified crops.

“Trying to extract RNA from the environment is tricky,” she said. “I spent maybe six months to a year to get clean, usable RNA out of complex soil samples.”

The work gave her the tools the team will use in this new effort. The researchers have begun looking for the virus’ genetic material in soil and stormwater samples collected before and after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They will be comparing a variety of samples from urban and rural locations, using samples collected before the pandemic as controls.

The researchers will be isolating DNA and RNA in their samples and then trying to detect the exact coronavirus RNA sequence as it gets picked up by soil or clay particles. They will use a series of primers to find and amplify the RNA through chemical reactions.

“By amplifying it, we are able to figure out if it’s there,” she said.

In addition to following social distancing in the laboratory, the researchers will follow protocols that destroy the virus’ protein coat that is key to any possible infection. They also plan to use a proxy virus in the lab to study conditions under which coronavirus might be more or less persistent in the environment.

Gardner first became interested in microbiology in the environment when she learned several years ago that Ebola’s deadly ability to infect and kill people is determined by just seven key proteins. Such a small number of molecule bundles can tremendously impact and shape society.

“Understanding all of the facets of coronavirus behavior in humans as well as the environment is one of the best weapons we can count on for figuring out how we should act in the next five to 10 years,” she said.