Evolutionary dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein and its consequences.J Med Virol. 2021 04; 93(4):2177-2195.JM
The emerged novel coronavirus severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has created a global health crisis that warrants an accurate and detailed characterization of the rapidly evolving viral genome for understanding its epidemiology, pathogenesis, and containment. Here, we explored 61,485 sequences of the nucleocapsid (N) protein, a potent diagnostic and prophylactic target, for identifying the mutations to review their roles in real-time polymerase chain reaction based diagnosis and observe consequent impacts. Compared to the Wuhan reference strain, a total of 1034 unique nucleotide mutations were identified in the mutant strains (49.15%, n = 30,221) globally. Of these mutations, 367 occupy primer binding sites including the 3'-end mismatch to the primer-pair of 11 well-characterized primer sets. Noteworthily, CDC (USA) recommended the N2 primer set contained a lower mismatch than the other primer sets. Moreover, 684 amino acid (aa) substitutions were located across 317 (75.66% of total aa) unique positions including 82, 21, and 83 of those in the RNA binding N-terminal domain (NTD), SR-rich region, and C-terminal dimerization domain, respectively. Moreover, 11 in-frame deletions, mostly (n = 10) within the highly flexible linker region, were revealed, and the rest was within the NTD region. Furthermore, we predicted the possible consequence of high-frequency mutations (≥20) and deletions on the tertiary structure of the N protein. Remarkably, we observed that a high frequency (67.94% of mutated sequences) co-occuring mutations (R203K and G204R) destabilized and decreased overall structural flexibility. The N protein of SARS-CoV-2 comprises an average of 1.2 mutations per strain compared to 4.4 and 0.4 in Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus and SARS-CoV, respectively. Despite being proposed as the alternative target to spike protein for vaccine and therapeutics, the ongoing evolution of the N protein may challenge these endeavors, thus needing further immunoinformatics analyses. Therefore, continuous monitoring is required for tracing the ongoing evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 N protein in prophylactic and diagnostic interventions.