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Virus Evol . Adaptation of the endemic coronaviruses HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-229E to the human host

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  • Virus Evol . Adaptation of the endemic coronaviruses HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-229E to the human host

    Virus Evol

    . 2021 Jun 24;7(2):veab061.
    doi: 10.1093/ve/veab061. eCollection 2021.
    Adaptation of the endemic coronaviruses HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-229E to the human host

    Diego Forni 1 , Rachele Cagliani 1 , Federica Arrigoni 2 , Martino Benvenuti 2 , Alessandra Mozzi 1 , Uberto Pozzoli 1 , Mario Clerici 3 , Luca De Gioia 2 , Manuela Sironi 1

    AffiliationsFree PMC article


    Four coronaviruses (HCoV-OC43, HCoV-HKU1, HCoV-NL63, and HCoV-229E) are endemic in human populations. All these viruses are seasonal and generate short-term immunity. Like the highly pathogenic coronaviruses, the endemic coronaviruses have zoonotic origins. Thus, understanding the evolutionary dynamics of these human viruses might provide insight into the future trajectories of SARS-CoV-2 evolution. Because the zoonotic sources of HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-229E are known, we applied a population genetics-phylogenetic approach to investigate which selective events accompanied the divergence of these viruses from the animal ones. Results indicated that positive selection drove the evolution of some accessory proteins, as well as of the membrane proteins. However, the spike proteins of both viruses and the hemagglutinin-esterase (HE) of HCoV-OC43 represented the major selection targets. Specifically, for both viruses, most positively selected sites map to the receptor-binding domains (RBDs) and are polymorphic. Molecular dating for the HCoV-229E spike protein indicated that RBD Classes I, II, III, and IV emerged 3-9 years apart. However, since the appearance of Class V (with much higher binding affinity), around 25 years ago, limited genetic diversity accumulated in the RBD. These different time intervals are not fully consistent with the hypothesis that HCoV-229E spike evolution was driven by antigenic drift. An alternative, not mutually exclusive possibility is that strains with higher affinity for the cellular receptor have out-competed strains with lower affinity. The evolution of the HCoV-OC43 spike protein was also suggested to undergo antigenic drift. However, we also found abundant signals of positive selection in HE. Whereas such signals might result from antigenic drift, as well, previous data showing co-evolution of the spike protein with HE suggest that optimization for human cell infection also drove the evolution of this virus. These data provide insight into the possible trajectories of SARS-CoV-2 evolution, especially in case the virus should become endemic.

    Keywords: antigenic drift; endemic coronavirus; molecular dating; molecular evolution; positive selection; receptor binding.