Can Viruses Copy Your Genetic Code and Create New Human Virus Genes?

Viruses have been found everywhere on Earth. It is believed that viruses outnumber bacteria by 10 to 1. A virus is a small collection of genetic code, either DNA or RNA, which is surrounded by a protein coat. 1 While a virus cannot replicate alone, it must infect cells and use the host cell to multiply further. Recent studies have shown that viruses can copy your genetic code and create new human virus genes.2 Let us understand more about this.

Understanding Viruses

Viruses are microscopic organisms that have two or three components. There is nucleic acid in the inside, which can be RNA or DNA. In either of the cases, the nucleic acid can be single or double-stranded. Surrounding this is a protein coat, in the form of a capsid or small units arranged in a particular manner. Some viruses also have an envelope, which they obtain as they emerge from a cell.

Viruses are continuously changing due to their genetic selection. They keep undergoing subtle changes through mutation when an error is incorporated in the viral genome and major genetic changes through recombination. Recombination occurs when there is an exchange of genetic information between co-infecting viruses, giving rise to a new virus. Recombination of viruses can occur by two mechanisms namely, independent assortment and incomplete linkage. IN any case, it can produce new viral serotypes or viruses with altered virulence.3

Can Viruses Copy Your Genetic Code And Create New Human Virus Genes?

It is known that a virus can infect the host and turn into a factory of producing more copies of itself. Recent findings suggest that several viruses can steal the genetic signals from the host to expand.2

This gives rise to a new concept based on the latest finding that viruses can copy your genetic code and create new human virus genes. In a study published in the journal Cell, the researchers have shown that a large group of viruses can grow their genomes by copying the signals from their hosts.4

It was a cross-disciplinary collaborative study in which a team of expert virologist was involved. It was led by researchers at the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute of Icahn School of Medicine in New York, and at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research in the UK.2

The team studied the genetic diversity and capability of protein synthesis of a group of viruses. This group which is known as segmented negative-strand RNA viruses (sNSVs) revealed that a variety of pathogens are capable of combining host and viral sequences and could code for new proteins. These viruses include serious pathogens affecting humans and domesticated plants and animals, which included influenza viruses and the Lassa virus that causes Lassa fever.

The ability of the viruses to steal the genetic signals and code new proteins can result in a huge range of unknown, undetected proteins.

Such types of proteins were not known earlier. The researchers named them Upstream Frankenstein Open reading frame proteins (UFO), as they are encoded by stitching together the host and viral sequences.2 These UFO proteins, which were not known earlier can be a great breakthrough in determining ways to treat and prevent viral diseases. They can be exploited for discoveries of vaccines and medicines and help to alter the course of viral infection.

As reported by the researchers, the capacity of a pathogen to overcome host barriers and establish infection is based on the expression of pathogen-derived proteins. To understand how a pathogen antagonizes the host and establishes infection, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what proteins a pathogen encodes, how they function, and how they contribute to virulence.

Viruses are incapable of making their proteins. Hence, for them to survive, they must catch hold of a host and snatch their cells. The viruses enter the cells, hijack them, and make their way to feed protein-making instructions into the protein-making factory of the host cell. It is believed that viruses do this by a process called cap-snatching. In this, they cut one end of the cell’s protein-encoding messages, which is a messenger RNA or mRNA. The sequence is then extended with a copy of their genes. This makes a hybrid message. The recent stud shows that the host sequence is not silent and the message provided is not solely by the virus. Based on the latest research, it is known that as sNSVs can make mRNAs using their genes, they can make instructions on protein-producing that feature host-derived start codons. This technique is called start snatching.

The researchers further stated that viruses take over their host at the molecular level, and this work identifies a new way in which some viruses can wring every last bit of potential out of the molecular machinery they are exploiting. While the recent findings and work are done here focusses on influenza viruses, it implies that a huge number of viral species can make previously unsuspected genes. They also aim at focusing on the next step, which is to understand the distinct roles that the unsuspected genes play.

This finding that viruses can copy your genetic code and create new human virus genes can pave way for further research and development in the field of healthcare. The researchers can use this knowledge to help disease eradication. A large global effort is required to stop viral epidemics and pandemics, and these new insights may lead to identifying novel ways to stop the infection.