SARS-CoV-2 Spike Furin Cleavage Site and S2' Basic Residues Modulate the Entry Process in a Host Cell-Dependent Manner.J Virol. 2022 07 13; 96(13):e0047422.JV
SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) envelope glycoprotein constitutes the main determinant of virus entry and the target of host immune response, thus being of great interest for antiviral research. It is constituted of S1 and S2 subunits, which are involved in ACE2 receptor binding and fusion between the viral envelope and host cell membrane, respectively. Induction of the fusion process requires S cleavage at the S1-S2 junction and the S2' site located upstream of the fusion peptide. Interestingly, the SARS-CoV-2 spike harbors a 4-residue insertion at the S1-S2 junction that is absent in its closest relatives and constitutes a polybasic motif recognized by furin-like proteases. In addition, the S2' site is characterized by the presence of conserved basic residues. Here, we sought to determine the importance of the furin cleavage site (FCS) and the S2' basic residues for S-mediated entry functions. We determined the impact of mutations introduced at these sites on S processing, fusogenic activity, and its ability to mediate entry in different cellular backgrounds. Strikingly, mutation phenotypes were highly dependent on the host cell background. We confirmed that although the FCS was not absolutely required for virus entry, it contributed to extending the fusogenic potential of S. Cleavage site mutations, as well as inhibition of furin protease activity, affected the cell surface expression of S in a host cell-dependent manner. Finally, inhibition of furin activity differentially affected SARS-CoV-2 virus infectivity in the tested host cells, thereby confirming the host cell-dependent effect of spike processing for the viral life cycle. IMPORTANCE SARS-CoV-2 is responsible for the current global pandemic that has resulted in several million deaths. As the key determinant of virus entry into host cells and the main target of host immune response, the spike glycoprotein constitutes an attractive target for therapeutics development. Entry functions of spike rely on its processing at two sites by host cell proteases. While SARS-CoV-2 spike differs from its closest relatives by the insertion of a basic furin cleavage motif at the first site, it harbors conserved basic residues at the second cleavage site. Characterization of the importance of the basic sequences present at the two cleavage sites revealed that they were influencing spike processing, intracellular localization, induction of fusion, and entry in a host cell-dependent manner. Thus, our results revealed a high heterogeneity in spike sequence requirement for entry functions in the different host cells, in agreement with the high adaptability of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.