Computational inference of selection underlying the evolution of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) recently emerged in China is thought to have a bat origin, as its closest known relative (BatCoV RaTG13) was described in horseshoe bats. We analyzed the selective events that accompanied the divergence of SARS-CoV-2 from BatCoV RaTG13. To this aim, we applied a population genetics-phylogenetics approach, which leverages within-population variation and divergence from an outgroup. Results indicated that most sites in the viral ORFs evolved under strong to moderate purifying selection. The most constrained sequences corresponded to some non-structural proteins (nsps) and to the M protein. Conversely, nsp1 and accessory ORFs, particularly ORF8, had a non-negligible proportion of codons evolving under very weak purifying selection or close to selective neutrality. Overall, limited evidence of positive selection was detected. The 6 bona fide positively selected sites were located in the N protein, in ORF8, and in nsp1. A signal of positive selection was also detected in the receptor-binding motif (RBM) of the spike protein but most likely resulted from a recombination event that involved the BatCoV RaTG13 sequence. In line with previous data, we suggest that the common ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 and BatCoV RaTG13 encoded/encodes an RBM similar to that observed in SARS-CoV-2 itself and in some pangolin viruses. It is presently unknown whether the common ancestor still exists and which animals it infects. Our data however indicate that divergence of SARS-CoV-2 from BatCoV RaTG13 was accompanied by limited episodes of positive selection, suggesting that the common ancestor of the two viruses was poised for human infection.IMPORTANCE Coronaviruses are dangerous zoonotic pathogens: in the last two decades three coronaviruses have crossed the species barrier and caused human epidemics. One of these is the recently emerged SARS-CoV-2. We investigated how, since its divergence from a closely related bat virus, natural selection shaped the genome of SARS-CoV-2. We found that distinct coding regions in the SARS-CoV-2 genome evolve under different degrees of constraint and are consequently more or less prone to tolerate amino acid substitutions. In practical terms, the level of constraint provides indications about which proteins/protein regions are better suited as possible targets for the development of antivirals or vaccines. We also detected limited signals of positive selection in three viral ORFs. However, we warn that, in the absence of knowledge about the chain of events that determined the human spill-over, these signals should not be necessarily interpreted as evidence of an adaptation to our species.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Virology
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Apr 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Insect Science
  • Virology


Dive into the research topics of 'Computational inference of selection underlying the evolution of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this