Coronaviruses have exceptionally large RNA genomes of approximately 30 kilobases. Genome replication and transcription is mediated by a multisubunit protein complex comprised of more than a dozen virus-encoded proteins. The protein complex is thought to bind specific cis-acting RNA elements primarily located in the 5'- and 3'-terminal genome regions and upstream of the open reading frames located in the 3'-proximal one-third of the genome. Here, we review our current understanding of coronavirus cis-acting RNA elements, focusing on elements required for genome replication and packaging. Recent bioinformatic, biochemical, and genetic studies suggest a previously unknown level of conservation of cis-acting RNA structures among different coronavirus genera and, in some cases, even beyond genus boundaries. Also, there is increasing evidence to suggest that individual cis-acting elements may be part of higher-order RNA structures involving long-range and dynamic RNA-RNA interactions between RNA structural elements separated by thousands of nucleotides in the viral genome. We discuss the structural and functional features of these cis-acting RNA elements and their specific functions in coronavirus RNA synthesis.
Keywords: Coronavirus; Genome packaging; RNA structure; RNA virus; Replication; cis-Acting element.
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