Like expert locksmiths, COVID-19 variants may be more adept at penetrating and infecting human cells, according to new research from physicists at CRF.
The variants are able to do this by flexing a spike protein that works like a hook, unlocking itself and slipping into a cell for infection. The better the virus can manipulate the spike protein, the easier it is to gain access to the cell and possibly spread in an unvaccinated population.
“Think of it as a moldable key,” said physicist Prem Chapagain, associate director of the CRF’s Institute for Biomolecular Sciences and one of the study’s authors. “The wrench itself is flexible and it finds the right groove and fits better because of that flexibility.”
In computer simulations conducted at CRF, Chapagain, physics professor Bernard Gerstman and graduate students Nisha Bhattarai and Prabin Baral saw how the tip of the original coronavirus spike protein squirmed but the tip of the southern variant -african squirmed even more. This extra flexibility, the researchers say, helps it bind better to human cells, although that alone may not fully explain the higher infection rate of the South African variant.
These spike proteins are of particular interest to researchers as well, because some of the more potent coronavirus vaccines prevent the spike protein from functioning and infecting cells. While other studies have shown that the vaccines are effective against these variants, the CRF researchers suggest that more research is needed to determine whether the changes seen in these variants and any future variants could render the vaccines ineffective. Vaccines remain the best chance we have to stop the spread of the virus.
“If you can contain it everywhere and vaccinate most of the world’s population, you don’t have a breeding ground for the virus,” Chapagain said. “We cannot give the virus a chance to acquire dangerous mutations. The more it spreads, the more it mutates.
Reference: Bhattarai N, Baral P, Gerstman BS, Chapagain PP. Structural and dynamic differences in the RBD spike protein in SARS-CoV-2 variants B.1.1.7 and B.1.351. J Phys Chem B. 2021; 125 (26): 7101-7107. do I: 10.1021 / acs.jpcb.1c01626
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