Comprehensive in-vivo secondary structure of the SARS-CoV-2 genome reveals novel regulatory motifs and mechanisms

bioRxiv. 2020 Jul 10;2020.07.10.197079. doi: 10.1101/2020.07.10.197079. Preprint


SARS-CoV-2 is the positive-sense RNA virus that causes COVID-19, a disease that has triggered a major human health and economic crisis. The genome of SARS-CoV-2 is unique among viral RNAs in its vast potential to form stable RNA structures and yet, as much as 97% of its 30 kilobases have not been structurally explored in the context of a viral infection. Our limited knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 genomic architecture is a fundamental limitation to both our mechanistic understanding of coronavirus life cycle and the development of COVID-19 RNA-based therapeutics. Here, we apply a novel long amplicon strategy to determine for the first time the secondary structure of the SARS-CoV-2 RNA genome probed in infected cells. In addition to the conserved structural motifs at the viral termini, we report new structural features like a conformationally flexible programmed ribosomal frameshifting pseudoknot, and a host of novel RNA structures, each of which highlights the importance of studying viral structures in their native genomic context. Our in-depth structural analysis reveals extensive networks of well-folded RNA structures throughout Orf1ab and reveals new aspects of SARS-CoV-2 genome architecture that distinguish it from other single-stranded, positive-sense RNA viruses. Evolutionary analysis of RNA structures in SARS-CoV-2 shows that several features of its genomic structure are conserved across beta coronaviruses and we pinpoint individual regions of well-folded RNA structure that merit downstream functional analysis. The native, complete secondary structure of SAR-CoV-2 presented here is a roadmap that will facilitate focused studies on mechanisms of replication, translation and packaging, and guide the identification of new RNA drug targets against COVID-19.

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  • Preprint