News Release

New 3D atomistic imagery created of SARS-CoV-2 shows how virus uses spike protein to fuse with and infect human cells

‘Digital twin’ modeling approach provides new insight that could aid potential vaccine and treatment concepts

Reports and Proceedings

DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory

‘Digital twin’ modeling approach provides new insight that could aid potential vaccine and treatment concepts

image: Molecular simulations of the coronavirus spike protein enable the first visualizations of the region of the spike that anchors to human host cells (called the fusion region). Multiple angled views of the spike protein (green) are superimposed, illustrating the dynamic nature of the fusion region (bulb shaped region towards bottom), overlaid with experimental data determined from cryogenic electron microscopy (shown in cyan). Red sections are glycan molecules. view more 

Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., March 7, 2022 – New computer models and simulations from Los Alamos National Laboratory are showing researchers how the virus that causes COVID-19 manages to use its spike protein to fuse with and infect human cells. To be presented at the March meeting of the American Physical Society, the atomistic-level imagery is highly consistent with cryo-electron microscopy data, despite the severe challenges of imaging at such high resolution.

“Better understanding of COVID-19 virus entry and structure of the spike protein will help clarify the mechanism of COVID-19 infection, the effect of variants, help with vaccine optimization, and help with drug design for treatment,” said Karissa Sanbonmatsu, a Los Alamos structural biologist on the project. Developing a digital twin of the extremely tiny but important structures allows researchers to explore potential techniques for blocking the infection at the source.

Why choose this tiny piece of the spike to study? COVID-19 infections require the virus to enter human host cells, and the spike protein plays a key role in this process, said Sanbonmatsu. In fact, the many variants of the coronavirus, including delta and omicron, have multiple mutations in the spike protein.

One step of virus entry is called virus-cell fusion, where the coronavirus actually fuses with the human host cell. This is not well understood, especially the region of the virus’s spike protein called the fusion peptide region. The fusion region is thought to be highly dynamic and is difficult to image at high resolution with conventional techniques such as cryo-electron microscopy and X-ray crystallography.

“Because the fusion region of the spike protein mediates virus-cell fusion and aids in virus entry into the cell,” said Chang-Shung Tung, a partner on the research, “this study provides basic mechanistic data that may be useful for understanding variants and improving vaccines and treatments.”

Using the Chicoma computing platform, one of the supercomputers at Los Alamos, Los Alamos researcher Tung created 3D structural models of this region, and Sanbonmatsu performed molecular simulations, creating an ensemble of 3D structures highly consistent with cryo-electron microscopy data, providing some of the first 3D images of the fusion region in atomistic detail.

“The spike protein undergoes many twists and turns during viral entry, making it difficult to visualize,” said Tung. “Building on data from other viruses, we used 3D modeling to capture regions of the spike people haven’t seen before.”

The paper: Forthcoming, after a presentation at the March American Physical Society meeting.

The funding: LANL LDRD

About Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is managed by Triad, a public service oriented, national security science organization equally owned by its three founding members: Battelle Memorial Institute (Battelle), the Texas A&M University System (TAMUS), and the Regents of the University of California (UC) for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health, and global security concerns.

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