Absolute quantitation of individual SARS-CoV-2 RNA molecules: a new paradigm for infection dynamics and variant differences
Lee JY., Wing PAC., Gala DS., Noerenberg M., Järvelin AI., Titlow J., Zhuang X., Palmalux N., Iselin L., Thompson MK., Parton RM., Wainman A., Agranoff D., James W., Castello A., McKeating JA., Davis I.
SummaryDespite an unprecedented global research effort on SARS-CoV-2, early replication events remain poorly understood. Given the clinical importance of emergent viral variants with increased transmission, there is an urgent need to understand the early stages of viral replication and transcription. We used single molecule fluorescence in situ hybridisation (smFISH) to quantify positive sense RNA genomes with 95% detection efficiency, while simultaneously visualising negative sense genomes, sub-genomic RNAs and viral proteins. Our absolute quantification of viral RNAs and replication factories revealed that SARS-CoV-2 genomic RNA is long-lived after entry, suggesting that it avoids degradation by cellular nucleases. Moreover, we observed that SARS-CoV-2 replication is highly variable between cells, with only a small cell population displaying high burden of viral RNA. Unexpectedly, the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK, exhibits significantly slower replication kinetics than the Victoria strain, suggesting a novel mechanism contributing to its higher transmissibility with important clinical implications.Graphical AbstractIn briefBy detecting nearly all individual SARS-CoV-2 RNA molecules, we quantified viral replication and defined cell susceptibility to infection. We discovered that a minority of cells show significantly elevated viral RNA levels and observed slower replication kinetics for the Alpha variant relative to the Victoria strain.HighlightsSingle molecule quantification of SARS-CoV-2 replication uncovers early infection kineticsThere is substantial heterogeneity between cells in rates of SARS-CoV-2 replicationGenomic RNA is stable and persistent during the initial stages of infectionB.1.1.7 variant replicates more slowly than the Victoria strain