Researchers have discovered a new “hidden” gene in the novel coronavirus that could contribute to its unique biology and pandemic potential, a breakthrough that could lead to the development of new therapies against the deadly virus.
According to scientists, including those at the American Museum of Natural History in the United States, learning more about 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 current study, published in the journal eLife, the researchers described the overlap of genes, or ‘genes within genes’, in the virus that they believe play a role in virus replication within host cells.
“Overlapping genes may be one of an arsenal of ways coronaviruses have evolved to replicate efficiently, counter host immunity, or be transmitted,” said lead author Chase Nelson of the American study. Museum of Natural History.
“Knowing that overlapping genes exist and how they work could reveal new avenues for coronavirus control, for example through antiviral drugs,” Nelson added.
The research team has identified a new overlapping gene, ORF3d, in the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that has the potential to encode a longer-than-expected protein.
They said ORF3d is also present in a previously discovered pangolin coronavirus, indicating that the gene may have undergone changes during the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and related viruses.
According to the study, ORF3d has been independently identified and has been shown to elicit a strong antibody response in COVID-19 patients, demonstrating that the protein produced by the new gene is produced during human infection.
“We don’t yet know its function or if there is any clinical significance. But we anticipate that this gene is relatively unlikely to be detected by a T cell response, as opposed to the antibody response. And perhaps this has something to do with it. with the way it was able to arise, “Nelson said.
Scientists explained that genes in coronaviruses may appear to be a written language as they are made up of strings of chemical-based molecules Adenine, Guanine, Uracil and Cytosine, represented by the letters A, G, U and C respectively.
They explained that these letters act as an information code for the synthesis of proteins within cells.
But while the units of language (words) are discrete and don’t overlap, the researchers said genes can be overlapping and multifunctional, with information encoded cryptically depending on where you start “reading”.
Although the overlapping genes are difficult to spot and most scientific computer programs are not designed to find them, scientists have said they are common in viruses.
This is partly due to the fact that RNA viruses have a high mutation rate, so they tend to keep their number of genes low to prevent large numbers of mutations, they explained.
The researchers noted that viruses have developed a “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 in danger of neglecting important aspects of viral biology,” Nelson said.
“In terms of genome size, SARS-CoV-2 and its relatives are among the longest RNA viruses that exist. They are therefore perhaps more prone to ‘genomic deception’ than other RNA viruses,” he added.