The virus that causes COVID-19 in all probability shared an ancestor with bat coronaviruses extra lately than scientists had thought. However discovering the direct ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 may be very unlikely, say researchers.
The complete genomes of SARS-CoV-2 and a number of other carefully associated bat coronaviruses counsel they shared a standard ancestor a number of a long time in the past. However the viruses are recognized to swap chunks of RNA with one another, a course of known as recombination, so every part has its personal evolutionary historical past. Within the newest evaluation, offered on the seventh World One Well being Congress in Singapore on 8 November, scientists in contrast fragments of coronavirus genomes. The evaluation means that some sections of bat coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2 shared a standard ancestor as lately as 2016—simply three years earlier than the virus emerged in folks in late 2019. The work has not been peer reviewed.
The discovering narrows the time between the ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 originating in bats and the virus leaping to folks, say researchers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t clarify how SARS-CoV-2’s closest ancestor made this bounce—a permanent thriller of the pandemic, which many scientists agree in all probability concerned an middleman animal.
The examine highlights how troublesome it is going to be to search out the direct ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 in bats, given how usually coronaviruses recombine and the way a lot time has handed. The probabilities of discovering a direct ancestor “are virtually nil”, says Edward Holmes, an evolutionary virologist on the College of Sydney in Australia. “That ship has sailed.”
SARS-CoV-2’s direct ancestor in all probability fashioned from a number of viruses and has been recombining and mutating in bats ever since, says Joel Wertheim, a molecular epidemiologist on the College of California, San Diego, who contributed to the newest evaluation. Sampling bats for coronaviruses may presumably determine viral fragments which can be extra carefully associated than these present in recognized coronaviruses to date, however in all probability gained’t reveal one direct ancestor, he says.
Because the pandemic started, many researchers, notably in southeast Asia, have been sequencing coronaviruses present in bats and different mammals. They’ve additionally sequenced coronaviruses in older tissue samples saved in freezers within the hopes of discovering the pandemic virus’s origins. However scientists have struggled to discover a progenitor virus for SARS-CoV-2, which has led to hypothesis that the pandemic was sparked by a virus that unintentionally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, located within the metropolis the place the pandemic began. The laboratory has labored on associated coronaviruses.
Greater than a dozen viruses carefully associated to SARS-CoV-2 have been remoted from bats and pangolins to date. To find out their relationship to SARS-CoV-2, researchers usually evaluate their whole genomes, that are about 30,000 nucleotides lengthy. Utilizing this technique, they’ve discovered that SARS-CoV-2’s closest recognized family are a bat virus present in Laos known as BANAL-52, whose genome is 96.8% similar to that of SARS-CoV-2, and a virus known as RaTG13, present in Yunnan, southern China, which is 96.1% similar. The three–4% distinction between their genomes and that of SARS-CoV-2 means that there was about 40–70 years of evolution since these viruses shared a standard ancestor.
However researchers say that evaluating whole-genome sequences ignores the position of recombination in virus evolution. Some chunks of RNA could possibly be very completely different from SARS-CoV-2, suggesting they’re extra distantly associated, whereas different fragments which can be way more related suggest a more in-depth relationship.
To account for recombination, the researchers in contrast 18 bat and pangolin viruses carefully associated to SARS-CoV-2, and spliced them into 27 segments. Every section—a couple of hundred to a few thousand nucleotide sequences lengthy—has a distinct evolutionary historical past, says Spyros Lytras, an evolutionary virologist on the College of Glasgow, UK, who offered the work in Singapore. For every section, the researchers used a bigger subset of 167 associated viruses to estimate how lately SARS-CoV-2 shared a standard ancestor with a bat or animal virus. The work was described in a put up on the virological.org dialogue discussion board final month, and the co-authors plan on submitting it to a journal early subsequent 12 months.
Years, not a long time
The evaluation revealed that some segments shared a standard ancestor with SARS-CoV-2 only a few years in the past. Many of the fragments shared a standard ancestor round 2007, however one small chunk, some 250 nucleotides lengthy, may have shared a standard ancestor in 2016, and one other 550-nucleotide-long fragment in 2015—solely 3–4 years earlier than SARS-CoV-2 emerged in folks. The youngest fragments had been from bats sampled in Yunnan and Laos. Given the distances these viruses can transfer with their bat hosts, the evaluation means that southern China and southeast Asia are hotspots for the ancestors of SARS-CoV-2, says Lytras.
“It’s a intelligent strategy,” says Holmes. “It provides you the purest sign of evolutionary time.” He factors out, nonetheless, that some fragments had been fairly quick, which makes these estimates much less dependable as a result of there are solely a restricted variety of RNA nucleotides to match.
This text is reproduced with permission and was first printed on November 10 2022.