SARS-CoV-2 Genome Contains Mature miRNA Sequences That Can Interact Strongly With Human mRNA Genes

Running Title: SARS-CoV-2 miRNA’s and Human Genes

James P. Bennett, Jr.

Neurodegeneration Therapeutics, Inc.

Charlottesville, Virginia

Send Correspondence To:

James P. Bennett, Jr. M.D., Ph.D.

Neurodegeneration Therapeutics, Inc.

3050A Berkmar Drive

Charlottesville, VA 22901

PH: 434-529-6457

FAX: 434-529-6458

Key Words: SARS-CoV-2, microRNA, gene expression, pathogenesis, therapy


The SARS-CoV-2 virus is presently responsible for sickening millions of persons worldwide who develop variable symptoms ranging from mild/none to severe adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) with multiple organ failure and death.

The genome of SARS-CoV-2 is a ~30 kilobase positive RNA strand that is transcribed inside infected cells to produce a polyprotein that is then hydrolyzed into multiple viral proteins with variable functions.

miRNA’s are small molecules that are a component of epigenetic systems and post-transcriptionally regulate gene expression. Using the miRDB algorithm (1) for predicting miRNA gene targets (, I examined the mature miRNA sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 genome reported by Sacar and Adan (2) in terms of strong predicted interactions (Target Prediction by miRDB = 90-100) with human genes. The potentially regulated human genes were then analyzed for gene ontology family clustering using Panther (

I found extensive involvement of human Gene Ontology families involved in molecular and biological processes that are regulated by miRNA’s present on the SARS-CoV-2 genome. miRDB predicted that one SARS-CoV-2 miRNA strongly regulated 15 human protocadherin genes, implying that if expressed, it could alter human adult brain function. miRDB predicted that another SARS-CoV-2 miRNA strongly regulated >600 human genes.

Blockade of SARS-CoV-2 miRNA’s (“miRNA sponge”, (3)) is one potential therapeutic approach. In addition, heterogeneity of viral miRNA presence and suppression of human gene expression across individuals, potentially monitored by their T-lymphocytes (4), may provide insights into the variable clinical courses of infection.


We are presently suffering the consequences of rapid person-person spread of highly contagious infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is believed to have recently migrated from mammals to humans (5-16). This virus uses ACE2 protein as a cellular receptor (11) to bind to vulnerable cells; and following viral genomic insertion, transcribes intracellularly its ~30 kilobase RNA into a polyprotein that is cleaved to multiple viral proteins (17). The primary target of SARS-CoV-2 virus is the respiratory tree, and the major symptoms are due to viral pneumonia, decreasing lung compliance and hypoxia. Most persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus develop none-mild-moderate COVID-19 symptoms and experience an uneventful recovery. A minority develop ARDS, require ventilator support and can die from refractory hypoxia and multiple organ failure. These individuals may die as a result of a “cytokine storm” of inflammatory cytokines (18-34).

Specific antiviral treatments are presently in clinical trials, and potential vaccines are being developed. Therapies that interrupt specific viral pathogenesis mechanisms are being sought. One area of investigation involves the microRNA (miRNA) responses of the host human cells/organs altering translation of viral RNA, or miRNA’s endogenous to the viral genome that could down-regulate human genes in vulnerable cells (35-37).

Recently Sacar and Adan (2) published a preprint on the BioRxiv server describing a computational analysis of a SARS-CoV-2 genome deposited in NCBI, as to the presence of a) miRNA hairpin and mature sequences that could be processed by mammalian miRNA synthesis systems, and b) human miRNA’s that could interact with and regulate viral genes. The authors also provided an analysis using the Panther algorithm ( of the protein processes and pathways of human genes potentially altered by viral miRNA’s.

I have revisited their dataset of viral genome mature miRNA sequences (2) and used the very recently updated miRDB algorithm (1) ( to assess human genes likely to be strongly regulated by viral miRNA’s. I find extensive interactions of viral genomic miRNA’s with multiple human genes of differing gene ontology (GO) groups, and in particular, one viral miRNA possessing strong interactions with multiple protocadherin genes involved in neuron-neuron interactions (38-45).

Materials and Methods

Mature miRNA sequences found by Sacar and Adan (2) in the SARS-CoV-2 genome and reported by them in Supplemental Table 1 were individually submitted to miRDB (1), which then listed human genes predicted to interact with each miRNA. miRDB reported interactions ranked by “Target Score” ranging from 50-100. I selected only those genes with Target Scores of 90-100 and submitted a composite list to Panther for gene ontology analysis.


Table 1. Human-like miRNA’s in SARS-CoV-2 Genome (2), Ranked by Interaction With Human Genes (miRDB)

Accession Mature miRNA Sequence # Genes With Target Score 90-100 (miRDB)












































































Table 1 lists mature viral genomic miRNA sequences from Supplemental Table 1 of Sacar and Adan (2), along with numbers of human genes predicted by miRDB to have strong interactions with each viral miRNA. The miRNA’s are ranked by number of human genes with strong interactions (“Target Score” of 90-100).

Figures 1 and 2 are bar charts that show the gene ontology distributions of Molecular Processes (Figure 1)

Figure 1.
Bar chart showing Gene Ontology (GO; Molecular Function) of Human Genes that interact with SARS-CoV-2 genome miRNA’s (26) based on Target Predictions of 90-100 from miRDB (31). Data from Panther (

and Biological Processes (Figure 2)

Figure 2.
Bar chart showing Gene Ontology (GO; Biological Process) of Human Genes that interact with SARS-CoV-2 genome miRNA’s (26) based on Target Predictions of 90-100 from miRDB (31). Data from Panther (

derived from the Panther analyses ( Among Molecular Processes (Figure 1), two families accounted for the majority: binding (GO:0005488) and catalytic activity (GO:0003824). Among Cell Processes, three groups were dominant: biological regulation (GO:0065007), cellular process (GO:0009987) and metabolic process (GO:0008152).

One particular predicted viral miRNA, AUUUAGGUGGUGCUGUCUGU (Accession 10, Table 1), interacted strongly (“Target Score” = 99) with 15 human protocadherin genes (38-45). Should this viral miRNA be expressed during SARS-CoV-2 infection, then one could imagine disrupted neuronal connections and functions arising in neural tissues of adults.


SARS-CoV-2 virus likely uses many viral genetic “tricks” to achieve its high infectivity rate that has resulted in rapid appearance of a worldwide viral pandemic. It remains unclear why there appears to be such a heterogenous clinical response to viral infection, with some (generally younger) patients showing no or mild COVID-19 symptoms, and others (generally older and/or with underlying medical illnesses) developing more severe COVID-19 symptoms, including ARDS and death (16).

Sacar and Adan (2) provided data that the SARS-CoV-2 genome contains hairpin and mature miRNA sequences that could regulate human genes. In this paper, I provide additional data using a most modern miRNA-gene targeting algorithm (miRDB (1)) to show that strongly interacting viral miRNA’s could regulate multiple intracellular processes, including those mediated by protocadherin in human brain.

The current paper is at best a preliminary report that hopefully will stimulate others to seek additional viral miRNA-human gene interactions. Specifically, it would be desirable to determine gene expression at varying time points after infection of human cells with SARS-CoV-2 virus, and to monitor expression of viral miRNA’s during infections. miRNA sponges (3) could be used to adsorb problematic SARS-CoV-2 miRNA’s, if they are expressed. Since SARS-CoV-2 virus can infect readily accessible T-lymphocytes (4), this cell population is easily studied and could be used in the above experiments.


Supported by Neurodegeneration Therapeutics, Inc. The author reports no conflicts of interest. No human subjects research took place. No animals were used in this study.

Author Contributions

The primary author (JPB) carried out all data analysis and manuscript preparation.

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