3D Mapping of Coronavirus Genome
The novel coronavirus uses structures within its RNA to infect cells. Scientists have now identified these configurations, generating the most comprehensive atlas to date of SARS-CoV-2’s genome. Although contained in a long, noodle-like molecule, the new coronavirus’s genome looks nothing like wet spaghetti. Instead, it folds into stems, coils, and cloverleafs that evoke molecular origami.
A team led by RNA scientist Anna Marie Pyle has now made the most comprehensive map to date of these genomic structures. In two preprints posted in July 2020 to bioRxiv.org, Pyle’s team mapped structures across the entire RNA genome of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, using living cells and computational analyses.
SARS-CoV-2 relies on its unique RNA structures to infect people and cause the illness COVID-19. But these structures’ contribution to infection and disease is often underappreciated, even among scientists, says Pyle, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Yale University.
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell (blue) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (red), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland
“The general wisdom is that if we just focus on the proteins encoded in the virus’s genome, we’ll understand how SARS-CoV-2 works,” Pyle says. “But for these types of viruses, RNA structures in the genome can influence their ability to function as much as encoded proteins.”
Researchers can now begin to tease out just how these structures aid the virus—information that could ultimately lead to new treatments for COVID-19. Once scientists have identified RNA structures that carry out key tasks, for instance, it may be possible to devise ways to disrupt them—and interfere with infection.