SARS coronavirus part bird, part mammal: study

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is formed by a combination of mammalian and avian viruses, says a new study from the University of Toronto.

The study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Virology, sheds light on the SARS coronavirus, a deadly form of pneumonia caused by the same viral family as the common cold. By tracing its evolutionary history, researchers theorize that SARS is likely the result of a rare recombination of viruses from both mammalian and avian hosts. This, they believe, forms an entirely new virus unrecognizable to human immune systems.

Understanding the evolution of SARS is a crucial step towards managing future viral outbreaks, according to the study's co-author David Guttman, a professor of evolutionary genomics in the Department of Botany. Identifying the specific evolutionary changes that enables this virus to spread into the human population should dramatically improve our understanding of why this particular virus is so virulent. "This will allow us to design more effective treatments and respond more effectively to future outbreaks," says Guttman.

In their study, Guttman and PhD student John Stavrinides deconstructed and compared the SARS virus genome to related coronaviruses using phylogenetic computational tools. They found that the protein encoded on the genome's left side was of mammalian origin (such as cats, cows and mice); while the proteins on the right were of avian origin (such as chickens and ducks). The middle gene the S gene encodes a protein that is a mix of mammalian and avian-like viruses.

In all coronaviruses, the S gene encodes a protein called spike glycoprotein, which protrudes from the head of the virus. With most coronaviruses, the immune system would recognize this protein as a foreign molecule. However, the merging of mammalian and avian viruses very likely altered the structure of this protein and allowed it to sneak past immune surveillance.


Contact: Karen Kelly
University of Toronto

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