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Study shed light on the early stages of viral evolution

New work could pave the way towards the treatment of viruses in the future, thanks to the scientists that cast light on how viruses evolve.

Scientists, including from Universities of York, Leeds, and the Hilvert Laboratory at the ETH Zürich, examined the structure, assembly, and Evolution of a “container” composed of a bacterial enzyme.

The study subtleties the underlying change of these virus-like particles into larger protein containers. It also unravels that packaging the genetic cargo in these containers becomes more efficient during the later stages of Evolution.

This happens because the genome inside develops signs of a mechanism generally utilized by natural viruses, including COVID-19, to direct their assembly.

Professor Reidun Twarock, from the University of York’s Departments of Mathematics and Biology, and the York Cross-disciplinary Centre for Systems Analysis, said, “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.”

Professor Peter Stockley from the University of Leeds’ Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology said, “What’s remarkable is this artificial virus-like particle evolves to be more efficient in packaging RNA. Our collaboration shows that the encapsidated messenger RNAs incorporate more packaging signals following the evolutionary steps than the starting RNAs. In other words, the phenomenon we have been working on in natural viruses ‘evolves’ in an artificial particle. Therefore, the results in this paper 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 therapy purposes.”

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

Journal Reference:
  1. Stephan Tetter et al., Evolution of a virus-like architecture and packaging mechanism in a repurposed bacterial protein, Science (2021). DOI: 10.1126/science.abg2822

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