The SARS-CoV-2 Transcriptome and the Dynamics of the S Gene Furin Cleavage Site in Primary Human Airway Epithelia.mBio. 2021 05 11; 12(3)MBIO
The spike (S) polypeptide of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) consists of the S1 and S2 subunits and is processed by cellular proteases at the S1/S2 boundary that contains a furin cleavage site (FCS), 682RRAR↓S686 Various deletions surrounding the FCS have been identified in patients. When SARS-CoV-2 propagated in Vero cells, it acquired deletions surrounding the FCS. We studied the viral transcriptome in Vero cell-derived SARS-CoV-2-infected primary human airway epithelia (HAE) cultured at an air-liquid interface (ALI) with an emphasis on the viral genome stability of the FCS. While we found overall the viral transcriptome is similar to that generated from infected Vero cells, we identified a high percentage of mutated viral genome and transcripts in HAE-ALI. Two highly frequent deletions were found at the FCS region: a 12 amino acid deletion (678TNSPRRAR↓SVAS689) that contains the underlined FCS and a 5 amino acid deletion (675QTQTN679) that is two amino acids upstream of the FCS. Further studies on the dynamics of the FCS deletions in apically released virions from 11 infected HAE-ALI cultures of both healthy and lung disease donors revealed that the selective pressure for the FCS maintains the FCS stably in 9 HAE-ALI cultures but with 2 exceptions, in which the FCS deletions are retained at a high rate of >40% after infection of ≥13 days. Our study presents evidence for the role of unique properties of human airway epithelia in the dynamics of the FCS region during infection of human airways, which is likely donor dependent.IMPORTANCE Polarized human airway epithelia at an air-liquid interface (HAE-ALI) are an in vitro model that supports efficient infection of SARS-CoV-2. The spike (S) protein of SARS-CoV-2 contains a furin cleavage site (FCS) at the boundary of the S1 and S2 domains which distinguishes it from SARS-CoV. However, FCS deletion mutants have been identified in patients and in vitro cell cultures, and how the airway epithelial cells maintain the unique FCS remains unknown. We found that HAE-ALI cultures were capable of suppressing two prevalent FCS deletion mutants (Δ678TNSPRRAR↓SVAS689 and Δ675QTQTN679) that were selected during propagation in Vero cells. While such suppression was observed in 9 out of 11 of the tested HAE-ALI cultures derived from independent donors, 2 exceptions that retained a high rate of FCS deletions were also found. Our results present evidence of the donor-dependent properties of human airway epithelia in the evolution of the FCS during infection.