Researchers found silent mutations in COVID-19 that helped it infect people before they know

Prashasti Awasthi Mumbai | Updated on October 18, 2020 Published on October 18, 2020

Researchers at Duke University have found a number of “silent” mutations in the roughly 30,000 letters of the coronavirus genetic code that helped it thrive once it made the leap. The researchers believe that this has possibly helped the virus set the stage for the global pandemic.

The team of researchers noted that the subtle changes involved how the virus folded its RNA molecules within human cells.

For the study, published in the journal PeerJ and EurekAlert!, the team incorporated statistical tools that they developed to detect adaptive changes that arose in the SARS-CoV-2 genome in humans. Study’s lead author Alejandro Berrio, a postdoctoral associate in biologist Greg Wray's lab at Duke said in a statement: "We're trying to figure out what made this virus so unique."

The researchers have flagged mutations that changed the spike proteins. The study suggests that viral strains carrying these mutations were more likely to thrive.

But with their approach, they also identified additional culprits that previous studies failed to detect.

The researchers reported the so-called silent mutations in two other regions of the SARS-CoV-2 genome. These are called Nsp4 and Nsp16. They seem to have given the virus a biological edge over previous strains without altering the proteins they encode.

One of the researchers explained in the study that instead of affecting proteins, the changes have affected the virus’ genetic make-up that is made of RNA. This helped the virus to take 3-D shapes and functions inside the human cells.

This helped the virus spread before people even know they have it. This has also made it difficult to control its spread than the SARS coronavirus outbreak of 2003.

Berrio added: “Nsp4 and Nsp16 are among the first RNA molecules that are produced when the virus infects a new person. The spike protein doesn't get expressed until later. So they could make a better therapeutic target because they appear earlier in the viral life cycle.”

The researchers believe that by pinpointing the genetic changes that enabled the new coronavirus to thrive in human hosts, the world can better predict future zoonotic disease outbreaks before they happen.

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Published on October 18, 2020
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