Transformations, Lineage Comparisons, and Analysis of Down-to-Up Protomer States of Variants of the SARS-CoV-2 Prefusion Spike Protein, Including the UK Variant B.1.1.7.Microbiol Spectr. 2021 09 03; 9(1):e0003021.MS
Monitoring and strategic response to variants in severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) represent a considerable challenge in the current pandemic and for future viral outbreaks. Mutations/deletions of the virion's prefusion Spike protein may have significant impact on vaccines and therapeutics that utilize this key structural protein in their mitigation strategies. In this study, we have demonstrated how dominant energetic landscape mappings ("glue points") based on ab inito all-atom force fields coupled with phylogenetic sequence alignment information can identify key residue mutations and deletions associated with variants. We also found several examples of excellent homology of stabilizing residue glue points across the lineages of betacoronavirus Spike proteins that we have called "sequence homologous glue points." SARS-CoV-2 demonstrates the least number of stabilizing glue points associated with interchain interactions among Down-state protomers across lineages. Additionally, we computationally studied variants among the trimeric Spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 using all-atom molecular dynamics to ascertain structural and energetic changes among variants. We examined both a theoretically based triple mutant and the UK or B.1.1.7 variant. For the theoretical triple mutant, we demonstrated through alanine substitutions that three key residues could cause the transition of Down-to-Up protomer states, where the transition is characterized by the "arm" length of the receptor-binding domain (RBD) rather than the hinge angle. For the B.1.1.7 variant, we demonstrated the critical importance of mutations D614G and N501Y on the structure and binding, respectively, of the Spike protein. We note that these same two key mutations are also found in the South African B.1.351 variant. IMPORTANCE Viral variants represent a major challenge to monitoring viral outbreaks and formulating strategic health care responses. Variants represent transmitting viruses that have specific mutations and deletions associated with their genome. In the case of SARS-CoV-2 and other related viruses (betacoronaviruses), many of these mutations and deletions are associated with the Spike protein that the virus uses to infect cells. Here, we have analyzed both SARS-CoV-2 variants and related viruses, such as Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), in order to understand not only differences, but also key similarities between them. Understanding similarities can be as important as differences in determining key functional features of a class of viruses, such as the betacoronaviruses. We have used both phylogenetic analysis, which traces genetic similarities and differences, along with independent biophysics analysis, which adds function or behavior, in order to determine possible functional differences and hence possible transmission and infection differences among variants and lineages.