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Assessing SARS-CoV-2 susceptibility in 400 species with comparative genomics

This conversation was led by Elinor Karlsson, Associate Professor in Bioinformatics and Integrative Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the director of the Vertebrate Genomics Group at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a zoonotic pathogen that readily infects some non-human species, posing a risk to humans, if viral reservoirs are established in other species, and to other species, particularly those already endangered. Data on susceptibility and pathology in non-human species is sparse, with natural infection documented in fewer than a dozen species, but genomic datasets are far more substantial. We compiled genomic data for over 400 species and used the sequence of ACE2, the host receptor protein, to make a prediction of SARS-CoV-2 susceptibility. We also show that the viral binding domain of ACE2 is enriched for signals of natural selection in bats, the proposed source of the progenitor virus. By leveraging existing data resources, we completed this work in just four weeks in the midst of a global pandemic. While the risk predictions are preliminary, this work demonstrates how open genomic resources can be leveraged to address questions never envisioned in their original design.

Elinor Karlsson in a Zoom meeting

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