Uncovering genetic traces to find out how humans have adapted to historic coronavirus outbreaks

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Coronavirus graphic. Credit: Gerd Altmann

An international team of researchers co-led by the University of Adelaide and the University of Arizona analyzed the genomes of more than 2,500 modern humans from 26 global populations, to better understand how humans have adapted to historic coronavirus epidemics.

In an article published in Current biology, the researchers used cutting-edge computer methods to uncover genetic traces of adaptation to coronavirus, the family of viruses responsible for three major epidemics in the past 20 years, including the current pandemic.

“Modern human genomes contain evolutionary information dating back hundreds of thousands of years, however, it is only in recent decades that geneticists have learned to decode the vast amount of information captured in our genomes,” said the main author, Dr Yassine Souilmi, from the University. from the Adelaide School of Biological Sciences.

“This includes the physiological and immunological ‘adaptations’ that have enabled humans to survive new threats, including viruses.

“Viruses are very simple creatures whose sole purpose is to make more copies of themselves. Their simple biological structure makes them incapable of reproducing on their own, so they must invade the cells of other organisms and hijack their molecular machinery in order to exist.

Yassine Souilmi

Principal author Dr Yassine Souilmi Australian Center for Ancient DNA, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Adelaide. Credit: The University of Adelaide

Viral invasions involve binding and interaction with specific proteins produced by the host cell, called viral interaction proteins (VIPs).

In the study, the researchers found signs of adaptation in 42 different human genes encoding VIPs.

“We have found VIP signals in five populations of East Asia and suggest that the ancestors of modern East Asians were first exposed to coronaviruses over 20,000 years ago,” said Dr Souilmi.

“We discovered that the 42 VIPs are primarily active in the lungs – the tissue most affected by coronaviruses – and confirmed that they interact directly with the virus underlying the current pandemic. “

Ray tobler

Dr Ray Tobler, Australian Center for Ancient DNA, School of Biological Sciences, University of Adelaide. Credit: University of Adelaide

Other independent studies have shown that mutations in VIP genes can mediate coronavirus susceptibility and also the severity of COVID-19 symptoms. And several VIPs are either currently used in drugs for COVID-19 treatments or are in clinical trials for further drug development.

“Our past interactions with viruses have left telltale genetic signals that we can harness to identify genes influencing infections and disease in modern populations, and may inform efforts to reorient drugs and the development of new treatments,” said said co-author Dr Ray Tobler of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide.

“By uncovering genes previously affected by historic viral epidemics, our study indicates the promise of evolutionary genetic analyzes as a new tool to fight epidemics of the future,” said Dr Souilmi.

The researchers also note that their results do not in any way replace pre-existing public health policies and protections, such as mask wearing, social distancing and vaccinations.

Reference: “An ancient viral epidemic involving genes interacting with the host coronavirus over 20,000 years ago in East Asia” by Yassine Souilmi, M. Elise Lauterbur, Ray Tobler, Christian D. Huber, Angad S. Johar, Shayli Varasteh Moradi, Wayne A. Johnston, Nevan J. Krogan, Kirill Alexandrov and David Enard, June 24, 2021, Current biology.
DOI: 10.1016 / j.cub.2021.05.067

The team involved in this study also included researchers from the Australian National University and the Queensland University of Technology.

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