Phase Separation Drives SARS-CoV-2 Replication: A Hypothesis

Front Mol Biosci. 2022 May 11;9:893067. doi: 10.3389/fmolb.2022.893067. eCollection 2022.


Identifying human proteins that interact with SARS-CoV-2 genome is important to understand its replication and to identify therapeutic strategies. Recent studies have unveiled protein interactions of SARS-COV-2 in different cell lines and through a number of high-throughput approaches. Here, we carried out a comparative analysis of four experimental and one computational studies to characterize the interactions of SARS-CoV-2 genomic RNA. Although hundreds of interactors have been identified, only twenty-one appear in all the experiments and show a strong propensity to bind. This set of interactors includes stress granule forming proteins, pre-mRNA regulators and elements involved in the replication process. Our calculations indicate that DDX3X and several editases bind the 5' end of SARS-CoV-2, a regulatory region previously reported to attract a large number of proteins. The small overlap among experimental datasets suggests that SARS-CoV-2 genome establishes stable interactions only with few interactors, while many proteins bind less tightly. In analogy to what has been previously reported for Xist non-coding RNA, we propose a mechanism of phase separation through which SARS-CoV-2 progressively sequesters human proteins hijacking the host immune response.

Keywords: RNA-binding proteins; phase separation; protein-RNA interactions; stress granules; viral RNA.