In December 2019, a novel human-infecting coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) was recognized in China. In a few months, SARS-CoV-2 has caused thousands of disease cases and deaths in several countries. Phylogenetic analyses indicated that SARS-CoV-2 clusters with SARS-CoV in the Sarbecovirus subgenus and viruses related to SARS-CoV-2 were identified from bats and pangolins. Coronaviruses have long and complex genomes with high plasticity in terms of gene content. To date, the coding potential of SARS-CoV-2 remains partially unknown. We thus used available sequences of bat and pangolin viruses to determine the selective events that shaped the genome structure of SARS-CoV-2 and to assess its coding potential. By searching for signals of significantly reduced variability at synonymous sites (dS), we identified six genomic regions, one of these corresponding to the programmed -1 ribosomal frameshift. The most prominent signal of dS reduction was observed within the E gene. A genome-wide analysis of conserved RNA structures indicated that this region harbors a putative functional RNA element that is shared with the SARS-CoV lineage. Additional signals of reduced dS indicated the presence of internal ORFs. Whereas the presence ORF9a (internal to N) was previously proposed by homology with a well characterized protein of SARS-CoV, ORF3h (for hypothetical, within ORF3a) was not previously described. The predicted product of ORF3h has 90% identity with the corresponding predicted product of SARS-CoV and displays features suggestive of a viroporin. Finally, analysis of the putative ORF10 revealed high dN/dS (3.82) in SARS-CoV-2 and related coronaviruses. In the SARS-CoV lineage, the ORF is predicted to encode a truncated protein and is neutrally evolving. These data suggest that ORF10 encodes a functional protein in SARS-CoV-2 and that positive selection is driving its evolution. Experimental analyses will be necessary to validate and characterize the coding and non-coding functional elements we identified.
Keywords: Coding potential; Coronaviruses; Functional RNA elements; SARS-CoV-2.
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