Viruses and their hosts are involved in an ‘arms race’ where they continually evolve mechanisms to overcome each other. It has long been proposed that intrinsic disorder provides a substrate for the evolution of viral hijack functions and that short linear motifs (SLiMs) are important players in this process. Here, we review evidence in support of this tenet from two model systems: the papillomavirus E7 protein and the adenovirus E1A protein. Phylogenetic reconstructions reveal that SLiMs appear and disappear multiple times across evolution, providing evidence of convergent evolution within individual viral phylogenies. Multiple functionally related SLiMs show strong coevolution signals that persist across long distances in the primary sequence and occur in unrelated viral proteins. Moreover, changes in SLiMs are associated with changes in phenotypic traits such as host range and tropism. Tracking viral evolutionary events reveals that host switch events are associated with the loss of several SLiMs, suggesting that SLiMs are under functional selection and that changes in SLiMs support viral adaptation. Fine-tuning of viral SLiM sequences can improve affinity, allowing them to outcompete host counterparts. However, viral SLiMs are not always competitive by themselves, and tethering of two suboptimal SLiMs by a disordered linker may instead enable viral hijack. Coevolution between the SLiMs and the linker indicates that the evolution of disordered regions may be more constrained than previously thought. In summary, experimental and computational studies support a role for SLiMs and intrinsic disorder in viral hijack functions and in viral adaptive evolution.

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