Published on Mon Jun 28 2021

A SARS-CoV-2 mini-genome assay based on negative-sense RNA to study replication inhibitors and emerging mutations

Vial, T., Oade, M. S., Russell, C. A., Eggink, D., te Velthuis, A. J. W.

Severe Acute Respiratory Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a positive-sense single-stranded RNA virus. Efforts to identify inhibitors of SARS- cov-2 replication enzymes and better understand the mechanisms underlying viral RNA synthesis have largely relied on biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratories.

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Abstract

Severe Acute Respiratory Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a positive-sense single-stranded RNA virus and the causative agent of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Efforts to identify inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 replication enzymes and better understand the mechanisms underlying viral RNA synthesis have largely relied on biosafety level 3 (BSL3) laboratories, limiting throughput and accessibility. Recently, replicon systems have been proposed that involve ~30 kb RNA-based replicons or large plasmids that express the viral structural and non-structural proteins (nsp) in addition to a positive-sense reporter RNA. Unfortunately, these assays are not user-friendly due to plasmid instability or a poor signal to background ratio. We here present a simple mini-genome assay consisting of a ~2.5 kb-long negative-sense, nanoluciferase-encoding sub-genomic reporter RNA that is expressed from a plasmid, and amplified and transcribed by the SARS-CoV-2 RNA polymerase core proteins nsp7, nsp8 and nsp12. We show that expression of nsp7, 8 and 12 is sufficient to obtain robust positive- and negative-sense RNA synthesis in cell culture, and that replication of the reporter RNA can be inhibited by active site mutations in nsp12 or the SARS-CoV-2 replication inhibitor remdesivir. The mini-genome assay provides a signal that is 170-fold above background on average, providing excellent sensitivity for high-throughput screens, while the use of small plasmids facilitates site-directed mutagenesis for fundamental analyses of SARS-CoV-2 RNA synthesis.