Stepwise Evolution and Exceptional Conservation of ORF1a/b Overlap in Coronaviruses

Han Mei, Sergei Kosakovsky Pond, Anton Nekrutenko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The programmed frameshift element (PFE) rerouting translation from ORF1a to ORF1b is essential for the propagation of coronaviruses. The combination of genomic features that make up PFE—the overlap between the two reading frames, a slippery sequence, as well as an ensemble of complex secondary structure elements—places severe constraints on this region as most possible nucleotide substitution may disrupt one or more of these elements. The vast amount of SARS-CoV-2 sequencing data generated within the past year provides an opportunity to assess the evolutionary dynamics of PFE in great detail. Here, we performed a comparative analysis of all available coronaviral genomic data available to date. We show that the overlap between ORF1a and ORF1b evolved as a set of discrete 7, 16, 22, 25, and 31 nucleotide stretches with a well-defined phylogenetic specificity. We further examined sequencing data from over 1,500,000 complete genomes and 55,000 raw read data sets to demonstrate exceptional conservation and detect signatures of selection within the PFE region.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5678-5684
Number of pages7
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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