Scientists decode humans’ adaptations to historical coronavirus outbreaks

An international research team, jointly headed by the University of Adelaide and the University of Arizona, has examined the genomes of over 2,500 modern humans from 26 global populations to gain a better understanding of people’s adaptations to the historical outbreaks of coronavirus.

Scientists decode humans’ adaptations to historical coronavirus outbreaks
Coronavirus graphic. Image Credit: Gerd Altmann, from Pixabay.

The researchers applied advanced computational methods to reveal genetic traces of adaptation to coronaviruses. This group of viruses was responsible for causing three major outbreaks in the last two decades, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The study was published in the Current Biology journal.

Modern human genomes contain evolutionary information tracing back hundreds of thousands of years, however, it’s only in the past few decades geneticists have learned how to decode the extensive information captured within our genomes.

Dr Yassine Souilmi, Study Lead Author, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Adelaide

Dr Souilmi added, “This includes physiological and immunological ‘adaptions’ that have enabled humans to survive new threats, including viruses. Viruses are very simple creatures with the sole objective to make more copies of themselves. Their simple biological structure renders them incapable of reproducing by themselves so they must invade the cells of other organisms and hijack their molecular machinery to exist.”

Viral invasions involve attachment and interaction with particular proteins generated by the host cell, called viral interacting proteins (VIPs). In the new study, the researchers detected signs of adaptation in 42 different VIP-encoding human genes.

We found VIP signals in five populations from East Asia and suggest the ancestors of modern East Asians were first exposed to coronaviruses over 20,000 years ago. We found the 42 VIPs are primarily active in the lungs—the tissue most affected by coronaviruses—and confirmed that they interact directly with the virus underlying the current pandemic.

Dr Yassine Souilmi, Study Lead Author, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Adelaide

Other separate research works have demonstrated that VIP gene mutations may mediate the susceptibility of coronavirus as well as the severity of COVID-19 symptoms. Many VIPs are either being utilized in drugs for treating COVID-19 infection, or are a part of clinical trials for more drug development.

Our past interactions with viruses have left telltale genetic signals that we can leverage to identify genes influencing infection and disease in modern populations, and can inform drug repurposing efforts and the development of new treatments.”

Ray Tobler, Study Co-author, Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Adelaide

By uncovering the genes previously impacted by historical viral outbreaks, our study points to the promise of evolutionary genetic analyses as a new tool in fighting the outbreaks of the future, concluded Dr Souilmi.

The researchers also pointed out that their findings do not supersede the pre-existing public health policies and protections, like social distancing, vaccinations, and wearing masks.

Source:
Journal reference:

Souilmi, Y., et al. (2021) An ancient viral epidemic involving host coronavirus interacting genes more than 20,000 years ago in East Asia. Current Biology. doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.05.067.

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