Viral and host small RNA transcriptome analysis of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2-infected human cells reveals novel viral short RNAs

Tom A.P. Driedonks, Lyle H. Nyberg, Abigail Conte, Zexu Ma, Andrew Pekosz, Eduard Duban, Alexander Tonevitsky, Holger Sültmann, Andrey Turchinovich*, Kenneth W. Witwer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


RNA viruses have been shown to express various short RNAs, some of which have regulatory roles during replication, transcription, and translation of viral genomes. However, short viral RNAs generated from SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 genomic RNAs remained largely unexplored, possibly due limitations of the widely used library preparation methods for small RNA deep sequencing and corresponding data processing. By analyzing publicly available small RNA sequencing datasets, we observed that human Calu-3 cells infected by SARS-CoV-1 or SARS-CoV-2 accumulate multiple previously unreported short viral RNAs. In addition, we verified the presence of the five most abundant SARS-CoV-2 short viral RNAs in SARS-CoV-2-infected human lung adenocarcinoma cells by quantitative PCR. Interestingly, the copy number of the observed SARS-CoV-2 short viral RNAs dramatically exceeded the expression of previously reported viral microRNAs in the same cells. We hypothesize that the reported SARS-CoV-2 short viral RNAs could serve as biomarkers for early infection stages due to their high abundance. Furthermore, unlike SARS-CoV-1, the SARS-CoV-2 infection induced significant (Benjamini-Hochberg-corrected p-value <0.05) deregulation of Y-RNA, transfer RNA, vault RNA, as well as more than 300 endogenous short RNAs that aligned predominantly to human protein-coding and long noncoding RNA transcripts. In particular, more than 20-fold upregulation of reads derived from Y-RNA (and several transfer RNAs) have been documented in RNA-seq datasets from SARS-CoV-2 infected cells. Finally, a significant proportion of short RNAs derived from full-length viral genomes also aligned to various human genome (hg38) sequences, suggesting opportunities to investigate regulatory roles of short viral RNAs during infection. Further characterization of the small RNA landscape of both viral and host genomes is clearly warranted to improve our understanding of molecular events related to infection and to design more efficient strategies for therapeutic interventions as well as early diagnosis.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere24570
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2024
Externally publishedYes


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