Genomic characterization and infectivity of a novel SARS-like coronavirus in Chinese bats
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SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV), the causative agent of the large SARS outbreak in 2003, originated in bats. Many SARS-like coronaviruses (SL-CoVs) have been detected in bats, particularly those that reside in China, Europe, and Africa. To further understand the evolutionary relationship between SARS-CoV and its reservoirs, 334 bats were collected from Zhoushan city, Zhejiang province, China, between 2015 and 2017. PCR amplification of the conserved coronaviral protein RdRp detected coronaviruses in 26.65% of bats belonging to this region, and this number was influenced by seasonal changes. Full genomic analyses of the two new SL-CoVs from Zhoushan (ZXC21 and ZC45) showed that their genomes were 29,732 nucleotides (nt) and 29,802 nt in length, respectively, with 13 open reading frames (ORFs). These results revealed 81% shared nucleotide identity with human/civet SARS CoVs, which was more distant than that observed previously for bat SL-CoVs in China. Importantly, using pathogenic tests, we found that the virus can reproduce and cause disease in suckling rats, and further studies showed that the virus-like particles can be observed in the brains of suckling rats by electron microscopy. Thus, this study increased our understanding of the genetic diversity of the SL-CoVs carried by bats and also provided a new perspective to study the possibility of cross-species transmission of SL-CoVs using suckling rats as an animal model.