Rodents can be reservoirs of SARS-like viruses; Study warns

By Amirtha P S, Desk Reporter
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New research by scientists at Princeton University in the US suggests that it is likely that some species of ancestral rodents have been repeatedly infected with coronaviruses similar to SARS-COV-2, thus developing tolerance to those pathogens and raising the possibility that modern rodents may be carriers of SARS-like viruses, according to a new study.

The researchers carried out comparative phylogenetic analyzes of the ACE2 receptors, used by SARS coronaviruses to infect mammalian cells of 78 animal species, in order to discover the different cellular responses to eventual coronavirus infection.

The results, published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, revealed that primates had highly conserved sequences of amino acids in the sites of the ACE2 receptor known to bind SARS viruses.

Rodents, however, had a greater diversity, and an accelerated rate of evolution, in these spots. Overall, the results indicated that SARS-like infections have not been evolutionary drivers in primate history, but that some rodent species have likely been exposed to repeated SARS-like coronavirus infections for a considerable evolutionary period.

Some rodent species may have acquired some form of tolerance or resistance to infections from SARS-like coronaviruses, while non-adapted mammals and primates may be more susceptible to symptomatic disease.

“Our study suggests that ancestral rodents may have had repeated infections with SARS-like coronaviruses and have acquired some form of tolerance or resistance to SARS-like coronaviruses as a result of these infections,” said Mr. Sean King, from the varsity’s Department of Molecular Biology.

“This raises the tantalizing possibility that some modern rodent species may be asymptomatic carriers of SARS-like coronaviruses, including those that may not have been discovered yet,” added Ms. Mona Singh from the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton.

While all previous human coronaviruses have clear zoonotic origins, some studies and experts have claimed that SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection, has also jumped from a non-human animal to humans.

Previous research has shown that Chinese Horseshoe bats are a host of numerous SARS-like viruses and tolerate these viruses without extreme symptoms. Thus, identifying other animals that have adapted tolerance mechanisms to coronaviruses is important for awareness of potential viral reservoirs that can spread new pathogens to humans, the researchers said.

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