SARS-CoV-2 spike engagement of ACE2 primes S2' site cleavage and fusion initiation.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2022 01 04; 119(1)PN
The COVID-19 pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection has resulted in tremendous loss worldwide. Although viral spike (S) protein binding of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) has been established, the functional consequences of the initial receptor binding and the stepwise fusion process are not clear. By utilizing a cell-cell fusion system, in complement with a pseudoviral infection model, we found that the spike engagement of ACE2 primed the generation of S2' fragments in target cells, a key proteolytic event coupled with spike-mediated membrane fusion. Mutagenesis of an S2' cleavage site at the arginine (R) 815, but not an S2 cleavage site at arginine 685, was sufficient to prevent subsequent syncytia formation and infection in a variety of cell lines and primary cells isolated from human ACE2 knock-in mice. The requirement for S2' cleavage at the R815 site was also broadly shared by other SARS-CoV-2 spike variants, such as the Alpha, Beta, and Delta variants of concern. Thus, our study highlights an essential role for host receptor engagement and the key residue of spike for proteolytic activation, and uncovers a targetable mechanism for host cell infection by SARS-CoV-2.