Correlated substitutions reveal SARS-like coronaviruses recombine frequently with a diverse set of structured gene pools

Asher Preska Steinberg, Olin K. Silander, Edo Kussell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Quantifying SARS-like coronavirus (SL-CoV) evolution is critical to understanding the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and the molecular processes that could underlie future epidemic viruses. While genomic analyses suggest recombination was a factor in the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, few studies have quantified recombination rates among SL-CoVs. Here, we infer recombination rates of SL-CoVs from correlated substitutions in sequencing data using a coalescent model with recombination. Our computationally-efficient, non-phylogenetic method infers recombination parameters of both sampled sequences and the unsampled gene pools with which they recombine. We apply this approach to infer recombination parameters for a range of positive-sense RNA viruses. We then analyze a set of 191 SL-CoV sequences (including SARSCoV-2) and find that ORF1ab and S genes frequently undergo recombination. We identify which SL-CoV sequence clusters have recombined with shared gene pools, and show that these pools have distinct structures and high recombination rates, with multiple recombination events occurring per synonymous substitution. We find that individual genes have recombined with different viral reservoirs. By decoupling contributions from mutation and recombination, we recover the phylogeny of non-recombined portions for many of these SL-CoVs, including the position of SARSCoV-2 in this clonal phylogeny. Lastly, by analyzing >400,000 SARS-CoV-2 whole genome sequences, we show current diversity levels are insufficient to infer the within-population recombination rate of the virus since the pandemic began. Our work offers new methods for inferring recombination rates in RNA viruses with implications for understanding recombination in SARS-CoV-2 evolution and the structure of clonal relationships and gene pools shaping its origins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2206945119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jan 31 2023


  • RNA viruses
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • coronavirus
  • phylogeny
  • recombination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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