Impact of SARS-CoV-2 Spike Mutations on Its Activation by TMPRSS2 and the Alternative TMPRSS13 Protease.mBio. 2022 08 30; 13(4):e0137622.MBIO
The continuous emergence of new variants of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) urges better understanding of the functional motifs in the spike (S) protein and their tolerance to mutations. Here, we focused on the S2' motif, which, during virus entry, requires cleavage by a host cell protease to release the fusion peptide. Though belonging to an immunogenic region, the SARS-CoV-2 S2' motif (811-KPSKR-815) has shown hardly any variation, with its three basic (K/R) residues being >99.99% conserved thus far. By creating a series of mutant pseudoviruses bearing the spikes of Wuhan-Hu-1, its G614 mutant or the Delta and Omicron variants, we show that residue K814 (preceding the scissile R815) is dispensable for TMPRSS2 yet favored by the alternative TMPRSS13 protease. Activation by TMPRSS13 was drastically reduced when the SARS-CoV-2 S2' motif was swapped with that of the low pathogenic 229E coronavirus (685-RVAGR-689), and also, the reverse effect was seen. This swap had no impact on recognition by TMPRSS2. In the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) spike, introducing a dibasic scissile motif was easily accepted by TMPRSS13 but less so by TMPRSS2, confirming that TMPRSS13 favors a sequence rich in K/R residues. Pseudovirus entry experiments in Calu-3 cells confirmed that the S2' mutations have minor impact on TMPRSS2. Our findings are the first to demonstrate which S2' residues are important for SARS-CoV-2 spike activation by these two airway proteases, with TMPRSS2 being more tolerant to variation than TMPRSS13. This preemptive insight will help to estimate the impact of S2' motif changes as they appear in new SARS-CoV-2 variants. IMPORTANCE Since its introduction in humans, SARS-CoV-2 is evolving with frequent appearance of new variants. The surveillance would benefit from proactive characterization of the functional motifs in the spike (S) protein, the most variable viral factor. This is linked to immune evasion but also influences spike functioning. Remarkably, though located in a strongly immunogenic region, the S2' cleavage motif has, thus far, remained highly conserved. This suggests that its sequence is critical for spike activation by airway proteases. To investigate this, we assessed how pseudovirus entry is affected by changes in the S2' motif. We demonstrate that TMPRSS2 readily accepts variations in this motif, whereas the alternative TMPRSS13 protease is more fastidious. The Wuhan-Hu-1, G614, Delta and Omicron spikes showed no difference in this regard. Being the first in its kind, our study will help to assess the impact of S2' variations as soon as they are detected during variant surveillance.