Understanding the rules of life

Bioscience for an integrated understanding of health

Category: Standard Studentships

Identification of determinants of virus phenotypes, including SARS Coronavirus-2/COVID-19

Project No. 2167

Primary Supervisor

Dr Mark Wass – University of Kent


Professor Martin Michaelis – University of Kent

Dr Christopher McCormick – University of Southampton


Viruses pose a continuous threat to humans, animals and plants.

The threat to humans is currently illustrated by SARS-CoV-2, but there are many others as well. With advances in sequencing technologies the genome sequence of viruses can now easily be obtained, however understanding the virus biology is much more difficult. This proposal will further develop a methodology for the comparative analysis of related viruses displaying different phenotypes, which Wass and Michaelis have established over the last six years (Sci Rep 2016;6:23743). We have applied this approach to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to compare it with SARS-CoV (which caused SARS in 2002/3) to identify differentially conserved amino acid positions (DCPs) that are responsible for the difference in mortality and transmission that are seen between these two species of coronavirus (bioRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.03.024257, under review at Bioinformatics).

We have recently received funding from BBSRC to make our approach readily available as a online resource for the analysis  of coronavirus  genome sequences. The project proposed here will implement new functionality to this resource and importantly implement it to be applicable to any type of virus.

We will apply the improved method to SARS-CoV-2 strains, as they begin to emerge over the next few years, to investigate determinants of virus biology. This will be coupled with wet laboratory experiments to verify our findings.


Given the threat to human, animal and plant health posed by viruses it is essential that methods, in particular those that make efficient use of the increasing amount of sequencing data, are developed to enhance our understanding of virus biology and pathogenicity. This project therefore has the potential for far reaching impact across the biological sciences as it will enable our DCP approach to be generally applied by the scientific community to any type of virus.