SARS-CoV-2 (2022)

I am writing this in January 2022, two years after the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 started making news around the world, leaving much sickness and death in its wake. Back in early 2020 I think most of us thought the pandemic would not last long and life would get back to normal relatively quickly. This has not been the case and since that time the virus has evolved and is still causing just as much trouble. The science that first sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 in January 2020 has allowed the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines, in record time, which have greatly helped in combatting the virus.


Back in March 2020, when much of the world was locked down, I made an artwork out of the original SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence, see here. Nearly 2 years on I thought it was time to create an updated artwork featuring the sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and three of the variants of concern that have all had their time in the limelight and been very successful in spreading around the world. These variants, named using the Greek letters "alpha", "delta" and "omicron" have arisen via a series of mutations to the original nucleotide sequence of the" Wuhan" strain. These mutations have allowed the virus to become more infectious and spread more easily in the population, so that the new variants have outcompeted the original strain and become the more dominant viruses. This is a good example of Darwin's evolutionary principle of natural selection / survival of the fittest at work - these "variants of concern" as they have been termed are more successful than the original virus.

For this artwork I used nucleotide sequence from the SARS-CoV-2 surface glycoprotein (S) gene, that encodes the spike protein. This is the protein that sticks out of the surface of the virus and is responsible for an interaction with the ACE2 receptor on the surface of human cells, allowing it to enter. It is thought that mutations to the S gene have been responsible for the success of these variants. I obtained the sequence of the alpha, delta and omicron variants through the ViralZone website, that lists the spike protein mutations found in these variants (as well as other variants of concern and variants of interest) and has links to the genome sequences they were derived from.

SARS-CoV-2 (2022), COVID-19, coronavirus, variants of concern, Wuhan, alpha, delta, omicron, sequence, DNA, RNA, protein, spike, S, gene

Like my recent "Christmas Tree Genes" artwork, I used a JavaScript program to create a single line drawing of SARS-CoV-2, made from the nucleotide sequence of the S gene. All bases of the S gene sequence are represented as coloured dots joined by a single line. The line is drawn in such a way that it makes the picture of a typical coronavirus, with the characteristic spike proteins sticking out of the spherical structure. I made the line colour gradually change from yellow to red, to make it look more sun-like, a nod to the naming of the original coronaviruses for their resemblance to the solar corona under electron microscopy. The dots that represent each base of the sequence are colour-coded: A = green, C = blue, G = yellow, T = red.

Sequence from the original Wuhan strain of SARS-CoV-2 is shown in the top left of the image. The alpha variant, originally isolated in the UK in September 2020, is shown at top right. The delta variant, originally isolated in India in December 2020, is shown at bottom left. The more recent omicron variant, originally isolated in South Africa in December 2021, is shown at bottom right. For each of the variants the sequence changes from the original Wuhan strain are highlighted with circles. White circles represent bases that are deleted in the variants compared to the original sequence. Coloured circles represent either substitutions or insertions of bases relative to the original sequence, with the same colour-coding as above (A = green, C = blue, G = yellow, T = red). You can see the picture being drawn in the 20 second video clip below.

It can been seen that all 3 variants have a number of S gene mutations compared to the original sequence. It is also clear that the number of S gene mutations in the omicron variant is significantly greater than seen in the alpha and delta variants of the virus.

You can purchase this artwork in a number of different formats from Redbubble or Society6 using the links below.