Comparing the evolution of distantly related viruses can provide insights into common adaptive processes related to shared ecological niches. Phylogenetic approaches, coupled with other molecular evolution tools, can help identify mutations informative on adaptation, whilst the structural contextualization of these to functional sites of proteins may help gain insight into their biological properties. Two zoonotic betacoronaviruses capable of sustained human-to-human transmission have caused pandemics in recent times (SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2), whilst a third virus (MERS-CoV) is responsible for sporadic outbreaks linked to animal infections. Moreover, two other betacoronaviruses have circulated endemically in humans for decades (HKU1 and OC43). To search for evidence of adaptive convergence between established and emerging betacoronaviruses capable of sustained human-to-human transmission (HKU1, OC43, SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2), we developed a methodological pipeline to classify shared non-synonymous mutations as putatively denoting homoplasy (repeated mutations that do not share direct common ancestry) or stepwise evolution (sequential mutations leading towards a novel genotype). In parallel, we look for evidence of positive selection, and draw upon protein structure data to identify potential biological implications. We find 30 candidate mutations, from which four [codon sites 18121 (nsp14/residue 28), 21623 (spike/21), 21635 (spike/25) and 23948 (spike/796); SARS-CoV-2 genome numbering] further display evolution under positive selection and proximity to functional protein regions. Our findings shed light on potential mechanisms underlying betacoronavirus adaptation to the human host and pinpoint common mutational pathways that may occur during establishment of human endemicity.
Genome biology and evolution
Department of Biology, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 3PS, UK.