The evolutionary history of ACE2 usage within the coronavirus subgenus Sarbecovirus

H. L. Wells, M. Letko, Gorka Lasso-Cabrera, B. Ssebide, J. Nziza, D. K. Byarugaba, Navarrete I. Macias, E. Liang, M. Cranfield, B. A. Han, M. W. Tingley, M. Diuk-Wasser, T. Goldstein, C. K. Johnson, J. Mazet, K. Chandran, V. J. Munster, K. Gilardi, S. J. Anthony

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 are not phylogenetically closely related; however, both use the ACE2 receptor in humans for cell entry. This is not a universal sarbecovirus trait; for example, many known sarbecoviruses related to SARS-CoV-1 have two deletions in the receptor binding domain of the spike protein that render them incapable of using human ACE2. Here, we report three novel sarbecoviruses from Rwanda and Uganda which are phylogenetically intermediate to SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 and demonstrate via in vitro studies that they are also unable to utilize human ACE2. Furthermore, we show that the observed pattern of ACE2 usage among sarbecoviruses is most likely due to recombination. We show that the lineage that includes SARS-CoV-2 is most likely the ancestral ACE2-using lineage, and that recombination with at least one virus from this group conferred ACE2 usage to the progenitor of SARS-CoV-1 at some time in the past. We argue that alternative scenarios such as convergent evolution are much less parsimonious; we show that biogeography and patterns of host tropism support the plausibility of a recombination scenario; and we propose a competitive release hypothesis to explain how this recombination event could have occurred and why it is evolutionarily advantageous. The findings provide important insights into the natural history of ACE2 usage for both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2, and a greater understanding of the evolutionary mechanisms that shape zoonotic potential of coronaviruses. This study also underscores the need for increased surveillance for sarbecoviruses in southwestern China, where most ACE2-using viruses have been found to date, as well as other regions including Africa, where these viruses have only recently been discovered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalUnknown Journal
StatePublished - Jul 7 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Pharmacology, Toxicology and Pharmaceutics(all)

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