Researchers have discovered a new “hidden” gene in the novel coronavirus that may contribute to its unique biology and pandemic potential. This advance could lead to the development of new therapeutics against the deadly virus.
According to scientists, including those at the American Museum of Natural History in the United States, knowledge of the 15 genes that make up the coronavirus genome could have a significant impact on the development of drugs and vaccines to fight the virus.
In the latest study, published in the journal eLife, the researchers described overlapping genes – or “genes within genes” – in the virus that they believe play a role in the virus’ replication in host cells.
“Overlapping genes may be one of the ways coronaviruses have evolved to replicate efficiently, thwart host immunity, or transmit themselves,” said study director Chase Nelson of the American Museum of Natural History.
“Knowing that overlapping genes exist and how they work can open new avenues for coronavirus control, such as through antiviral drugs,” Nelson added.
The research team identified a new overlapping gene – ORF3d – in the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which may encode a protein that is longer than expected.
They said ORF3d is also present in a previously discovered pangolin coronavirus, indicating that the gene may have undergone changes during the development of SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses.
According to the study, ORF3d was independently identified and shown to elicit a strong antibody response in COVID-19 patients, showing that the protein produced from the new gene is made during infection in humans.
“We don’t yet know its function or we don’t know whether it is of clinical significance. However, we predict that this gene, unlike the antibody response, is relatively unlikely to be detected by a T-cell response. And maybe that has something to do with it how the gene could arise, “said Mr Nelson.
The scientists explained that genes in coronaviruses can appear like written language because they are made up of chains of basic chemical molecules, adenine, guanine, uracil and cytosine, represented by the letters A, G, U and C, respectively.
They explained that these letters serve as an information code for the synthesis of proteins in cells.
While the units of language (words) are discrete and non-overlapping, researchers can say that genes can be overlapping and multifunctional, with information cryptically encoded depending on where you start “reading”.
While overlapping genes are difficult to spot and most scientific computer programs are not designed to find them, scientists said they are common in viruses.
This is partly because RNA viruses have a high mutation rate, which is why they tend to keep their gene counts low to prevent large numbers of mutations, they explained.
The researchers found that viruses developed some kind of data compression system in which a letter in its genome can contribute to two or even three different genes.
“The lack of overlapping genes puts us at risk of missing important aspects of viral biology,” said Nelson.
“In terms of genome size, SARS-CoV-2 and its relatives are among the longest existing RNA viruses in existence, so they may be more prone to ‘genomic tricks’ than other RNA viruses,” he added.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and posted from a syndicated feed.)