Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) originated in bats and spread to humans via zoonotic transmission from camels. We analyzed the evolution of the spike (S) gene in betacoronaviruses (betaCoVs) isolated from different mammals, in bat coronavirus populations, as well as in MERS-CoV strains from the current outbreak. Results indicated several positively selected sites located in the region comprising the two heptad repeats (HR1 and HR2) and their linker. Two sites (R652 and V1060) were positively selected in the betaCoVs phylogeny and correspond to mutations associated with expanded host range in other coronaviruses. During the most recent evolution of MERS-CoV, adaptive mutations in the HR1 (Q/R/H1020) arose in camels or in a previous host and spread to humans. We determined that different residues at position 1020 establish distinct inter- and intra-helical interactions and affect the stability of the six-helix bundle formed by the HRs. A similar effect on stability was observed for a nearby mutation (T1015N) that increases MERS-CoV infection efficiency in vitro. Data herein indicate that the heptad repeat region was a major target of adaptive evolution in MERS-CoV-related viruses; these results are relevant for the design of fusion inhibitor peptides with antiviral function.
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