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Recombination and lineage-specific mutations led to the emergence of SARS-CoV-2

By Juan Ángel Patiño-Galindo, Ioan Filip, Mohammed AlQuraishi, Raul Rabadan

Posted 18 Feb 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.02.10.942748

The recent outbreak of a new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in Wuhan, China, underscores the need for understanding the evolutionary processes that drive the emergence and adaptation of zoonotic viruses in humans. Here, we show that recombination in betacoronaviruses, including human-infecting viruses like SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, frequently encompasses the Receptor Binding Domain (RBD) in the Spike gene. We find that this common process likely led to a recombination event at least 11 years ago in an ancestor of the SARS-CoV-2 involving the RBD. As a result of this recombination event, SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 share a similar genotype in RBD, including two insertions (positions 432-436 and 460-472), and alleles 427N and 436Y. Both 427N and 436Y belong to a helix that interacts with the human ACE2 receptor. Ancestral state analyses revealed that SARS-CoV-2 differentiated from its most recent common ancestor with RaTG13 by accumulating a significant number of amino acid changes in the RBD. In sum, we propose a two-hit scenario in the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus whereby the SARS-CoV-2 ancestors in bats first acquired genetic characteristics of SARS-CoV by incorporation of a SARS-like RBD through recombination before 2009, and subsequently, the lineage that led to SARS-CoV-2 accumulated further, unique changes specifically in the RBD.

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