Analysis of intrapatient heterogeneity uncovers the microevolution of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus.Cold Spring Harb Mol Case Stud. 2016 11; 2(6):a001214.CS
Genome sequence analysis of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) variants from patient specimens has revealed the evolutionary dynamics and mechanisms of pathogenesis of the virus. However, most studies have analyzed the consensus sequences of MERS-CoVs, precluding an investigation of intrapatient heterogeneity. Here, we analyzed non-consensus sequences to characterize intrapatient heterogeneity in cases associated with the 2015 outbreak of MERS in South Korea. Deep-sequencing analysis of MERS-CoV genomes performed on specimens from eight patients revealed significant intrapatient variation; therefore, sequence heterogeneity was further analyzed using targeted deep sequencing. A total of 35 specimens from 24 patients (including a super-spreader) were sequenced to detect and analyze variants displaying intrapatient heterogeneity. Based on the analysis of non-consensus sequences, we demonstrated the intrapatient heterogeneity of MERS-CoVs, with the highest level in the super-spreader specimen. The heterogeneity could be transmitted in a close association with variation in the consensus sequences, suggesting the occurrence of multiple MERS-CoV infections. Analysis of intrapatient heterogeneity revealed a relationship between D510G and I529T mutations in the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the viral spike glycoprotein. These two mutations have been reported to reduce the affinity of the RBD for human CD26. Notably, although the frequency of both D510G and I529T varied greatly among specimens, the combined frequency of the single mutants was consistently high (87.7% ± 1.9% on average). Concurrently, the frequency of occurrence of the wild type at the two positions was only 6.5% ± 1.7% on average, supporting the hypothesis that selection pressure exerted by the host immune response played a critical role in shaping genetic variants and their interaction in human MERS-CoVs during the outbreak.