SARS-CoV-2 promotes an imbalanced host response that underlies the development and severity of COVID-19. Infections with viruses are known to modulate transposable elements (TEs), which can exert downstream effects by modulating host gene expression, innate immune sensing, or activities encoded by their protein products. We investigated the impact of SARS-CoV-2 infection on TE expression using RNA-Seq data from cell lines and from primary patient samples. Using a bioinformatics tool, Telescope, we showed that SARS-CoV-2 infection led to upregulation or downregulation of TE transcripts, a subset of which differed from cells infected with SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV or MERS), influenza A virus (IAV), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and human parainfluenza virus type 3 (HPIV3). Differential expression of key retroelements specifically identified distinct virus families, such as Coronaviridae, with unique retroelement expression subdividing viral species. Analysis of ChIP-Seq data showed that TEs differentially expressed in SARS-CoV-2 infection were enriched for binding sites for transcription factors involved in immune responses and for pioneer transcription factors. In samples from patients with COVID-19, there was significant TE overexpression in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid and downregulation in PBMCs. Thus, although the host gene transcriptome is altered by infection with SARS-CoV-2, the retrotranscriptome may contain the most distinctive features of the cellular response to SARS-CoV-2 infection.


Jez L. Marston, Matthew Greenig, Manvendra Singh, Matthew L. Bendall, Rodrigo R.R. Duarte, Cédric Feschotte, Luis P. Iñiguez, Douglas F. Nixon


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