A new gene (ORF3d) has been identified in SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—that may have contributed to its unique biology and pandemic potential. SARS-CoV-2 (image at left) only has about 15 genes, so knowing more about this and other overlapping genes—or “genes within genes”—could have a significant impact on how we combat the virus, scientists say. The description of the new gene, which is also found in a pangolin coronavirus, was published online on October 1, 2020 in the journal eLife (https://elifesciences.org/articles/59633). [Editor’s Note: Pangolins are long-snouted, ant-eating mammals often used in traditional Chinese medicine.] The open-access eLife article is titled “Dynamically Evolving Novel Overlapping Gene As a Factor in the SARS-Cov-2 Pandemic.” “Overlapping genes may be one of an arsenal of ways in which coronaviruses have evolved to replicate efficiently, thwart host immunity, or get themselves transmitted,” said lead author Chase Nelson, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Academia Sinica in Taiwan and a visiting scientist at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. “Knowing that overlapping genes exist and how they function may reveal new avenues for coronavirus control, for example through antiviral drugs.” Rather than discrete blocks that convey a particular set of information, genes can be overlapping and multifunctional, with information cryptically encoded depending on where you start “reading” them. Such “overlapping genes” are hard to spot, but they are common in viruses, where one letter in a genome can contribute to two or even three different genes. “Missing overlapping genes puts us in peril of overlooking important aspects of viral biology,” said Dr. Nelson.
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