Study sheds new light on the early stages of viral evolution

Scientists from the Universities of York and Leeds, in association with Hilvert Laboratory at the ETH Zurich, have investigated the evolution, structure, and assembly of virus-like particles. According to the researchers, this breakthrough discovery will impact the way viruses are treated in the future.

Study sheds new light on the early stages of viral evolution
Image credit: ETH Zürich / Stephan Tetter

Published in the Science journal, the study describes the structural transformation of these virus-like particles into larger protein “containers.”

The study also revealed that the packaging of the genetic cargo in these containers becomes more efficient during the later stages of evolution. This is because the genome within these containers evolves the hallmarks of a mechanism, which is extensively used by natural viruses to control their assembly, including the COVID-19, stated the researchers. This mechanism was discovered by the joint effort of the researchers from the Universities of York and Leeds.

Using a novel interdisciplinary technique developed in our Wellcome Trust-funded team in Leeds and York, we were able to demonstrate that this artificial system evolved the molecular hallmarks of a ‘virus assembly mechanism’, enabling efficient packaging of its genetic cargo.”

Reidun Twarock, Professor, Departments of Mathematics and Biology, University of York and York Cross-Disciplinary Centre for Systems Analysis

During evolution, the artificial virus-like particle efficiently packages and protects multiple copies of its encoding messenger RNA.

What’s remarkable is this artificial virus-like particle evolves to be more efficient in packaging RNA. Our collaboration shows that following the evolutionary steps the encapsidated messenger RNAs incorporate more Packaging Signals than the starting RNAs.”

Peter Stockle, Professor Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology, University of Leeds.

In other words, the phenomenon we have been working on in natural viruses “evolves” in an artificial particle, and the results in this paper therefore describe a process that may have occurred in the early evolution of viruses. This understanding enables us to exploit these containers as delivery vehicles for gene therapeutic purposes,” concluded Professor Stockle.

Source:
Journal reference:

Tetter, S., et al. (2021) Evolution of a virus-like architecture and packaging mechanism in a repurposed bacterial protein. Science. doi.org/10.1126/science.abg2822.

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