Novel Immunoglobulin Domain Proteins Provide Insights into Evolution and Pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2-Related Viruses

Yongjun Tan, Theresa Schneider, Matthew Leong, L Aravind, Dapeng Zhang
MBio 2020 May 29, 11 (3)
A novel coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was recently identified as the causative agent for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak that has generated a global health crisis. We use a combination of genomic analysis and sensitive profile-based sequence and structure analysis to understand the potential pathogenesis determinants of this virus. As a result, we identify several fast-evolving genomic regions that might be at the interface of virus-host interactions, corresponding to the receptor binding domain of the Spike protein, the three tandem Macro fold domains in ORF1a, and the uncharacterized protein ORF8. Further, we show that ORF8 and several other proteins from alpha- and beta-CoVs belong to novel families of immunoglobulin (Ig) proteins. Among them, ORF8 is distinguished by being rapidly evolving, possessing a unique insert, and having a hypervariable position among SARS-CoV-2 genomes in its predicted ligand-binding groove. We also uncover numerous Ig domain proteins from several unrelated metazoan viruses, which are distinct in sequence and structure but share comparable architectures to those of the CoV Ig domain proteins. Hence, we propose that SARS-CoV-2 ORF8 and other previously unidentified CoV Ig domain proteins fall under the umbrella of a widespread strategy of deployment of Ig domain proteins in animal viruses as pathogenicity factors that modulate host immunity. The rapid evolution of the ORF8 Ig domain proteins points to a potential evolutionary arms race between viruses and hosts, likely arising from immune pressure, and suggests a role in transmission between distinct host species. IMPORTANCE The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic strongly emphasizes the need for a more complete understanding of the biology and pathogenesis of its causative agent SARS-CoV-2. Despite intense scrutiny, several proteins encoded by the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 and other SARS-like coronaviruses remain enigmatic. Moreover, the high infectivity and severity of SARS-CoV-2 in certain individuals make wet-lab studies currently challenging. In this study, we used a series of computational strategies to identify several fast-evolving regions of SARS-CoV-2 proteins which are potentially under host immune pressure. Most notably, the hitherto-uncharacterized protein encoded by ORF8 is one of them. Using sensitive sequence and structural analysis methods, we show that ORF8 and several other proteins from alpha- and beta-coronavirus comprise novel families of immunoglobulin domain proteins, which might function as potential immune modulators to delay or attenuate the host immune response against the viruses.

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