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Source: PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


Reverse-transcribed SARS-CoV-2 RNA can integrate into the genome of cultured human cells and can be expressed in patient-derived tissues

Liguo Zhang, Alexsia Richards, M. Inmaculada Barrasa, Stephen H. Hughes, Richard A. Young, and Rudolf Jaenisch

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PNAS May 25, 2021 118 (21) e2105968118; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2105968118

  1. Contributed by Rudolf Jaenisch, April 19, 2021 (sent for review March 29, 2021; reviewed by Anton Berns and Anna Marie Skalka)


An unresolved issue of SARS-CoV-2 disease is that patients often remain positive for viral RNA as detected by PCR many weeks after the initial infection in the absence of evidence for viral replication. We show here that SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be reverse-transcribed and integrated into the genome of the infected cell and be expressed as chimeric transcripts fusing viral with cellular sequences. Importantly, such chimeric transcripts are detected in patient-derived tissues. Our data suggest that, in some patient tissues, the majority of all viral transcripts are derived from integrated sequences. Our data provide an insight into the consequence of SARS-CoV-2 infections that may help to explain why patients can continue to produce viral RNA after recovery.


Prolonged detection of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) RNA and recurrence of PCR-positive tests have been widely reported in patients after recovery from COVID-19, but some of these patients do not appear to shed infectious virus. We investigated the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 RNAs can be reverse-transcribed and integrated into the DNA of human cells in culture and that transcription of the integrated sequences might account for some of the positive PCR tests seen in patients. In support of this hypothesis, we found that DNA copies of SARS-CoV-2 sequences can be integrated into the genome of infected human cells. We found target site duplications flanking the viral sequences and consensus LINE1 endonuclease recognition sequences at the integration sites, consistent with a LINE1 retrotransposon-mediated, target-primed reverse transcription and retroposition mechanism. We also found, in some patient-derived tissues, evidence suggesting that a large fraction of the viral sequences is transcribed from integrated DNA copies of viral sequences, generating viral–host chimeric transcripts. The integration and transcription of viral sequences may thus contribute to the detection of viral RNA by PCR in patients after infection and clinical recovery. Because we have detected only subgenomic sequences derived mainly from the 3′ end of the viral genome integrated into the DNA of the host cell, infectious virus cannot be produced from the integrated subgenomic SARS-CoV-2 sequences.

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