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Temple University Institute for Genomics and Evolutionary Medicine (IGEM) Researchers Trace Back the Ancestor of Coronavirus

Pick up a newspaper, look at the internet or listen to radio or TV and you’ll discover research on the coronavirus from Temple’s Institute of Genomics and Evolutionary Medicine (IGEM) in the news—on CNN, SciTech Daily, News Medical, the Economist and more. IGEM, led by Director Sudhir Kumar, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Biology, has been working on developing methods to study evolution among live organisms. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been applying these methods to determine if the coronavirus observed in Wuhan, China, at the end of December 2019, was the progenitor of all worldwide coronavirus infections, or if it was only one particular strain of a large family of strains. 

In their article published in August 2021 entitled “An Evolutionary Portrait of the Progenitor SARS-CoV-2 and its Dominant Offshoots in COVID-19 Pandemic,” they answered this question by tracing back the progenitor of the coronavirus. The study shows the progenitor was three steps older than the strain first found in Wuhan—making it the great grandfather of that strain. The research also pointed to evidence that the progenitor likely existed in October 2019, a few months before the Wuhan outbreak.  

The virus mutation that manifested in Wuhan was infectious, highly transmissible and deadly to humans. Although the research doesn’t make it clear that the Wuhan virus was the source of original infection in people, humanity has a long history of variant pathogens that jumped from other species and adapted to infect humans.   

“Mutations happen all the time, viruses multiply creating new strains and variants,” said Kumar. “Then, when people infect other people, they transmit their variant type to others.” 

Because coronavirus mutations are quite fast and display large genetic diversity, the question is which particular mutation made humans hospitable to the virus and gave it its high rate of transmissibility. A variety of strains are found in different parts of each country around the world, but they haven’t all precipitated a super-spreader event, so some mutations are more impactful than others.

Evolutionary analyses, such as those conducted by IGEM, indicate the probable sequence of mutations. Knowing which particular mutations are likely to be the most successful can help us predict and be prepared for what might happen next. An evolutionary study published by Biology Professor Sergei Pond, an IGEM researcher, has shown that the next wave of coronavirus adaptations pose threats to humanity (“The emergence and ongoing convergent evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 N501Y lineages”).  

“If you don’t do evolutionary analysis, all you can do is look at the data on the screen. It’s data, but no knowledge.” 

—Sudhir Kumar, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Biology

IGEM’s ongoing research highlights the importance of tracing back the history of a particular disease in order to understand its spread to humans. “If you don’t do evolutionary analysis, all you can do is look at the data on the screen,” Kumar said. “It’s data, but no knowledge.” 

By Renata Buscher Kaminski, International Affairs Communications Intern
Photo by Joseph V. Labolito

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