Full paper available on Int. J. Molecular Sciences. 


Viruses provide vital insights into gene expression control. Viral transactivators, with other viral and cellular proteins, regulate expression of self, other viruses, and host genes with profound effects on infected cells, underlying inflammation, control of immune responses, and pathogenesis. The multifunctional Tat proteins of lentiviruses (HIV-1, HIV-2, and SIV) transactivate gene expression by recruiting host proteins and binding to transacting responsive regions (TARs) in viral and host RNAs. SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid participates in early viral transcription, recruits similar cellular proteins, and shares intracellular, surface, and extracellular distribution with Tat. SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid interacting with the replication–transcription complex might, therefore, transactivate viral and cellular RNAs in the transcription and reactivation of self and other viruses, acute and chronic pathogenesis, immune evasion, and viral evolution. Here, we show, by using primary and secondary structural comparisons, that the leaders of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses contain TAR-like sequences in stem-loops 2 and 3. The coronaviral nucleocapsid C-terminal domains harbor a region of similarity to TAR-binding regions of lentiviral Tat proteins, and coronaviral nonstructural protein 12 has a cysteine-rich metal binding, dimerization domain, as do lentiviral Tat proteins. Although SARS-CoV-1 nucleocapsid transactivated gene expression in a replicon-based study, further experimental evidence for coronaviral transactivation and its possible implications is warranted.