Binding of SARS-CoV-2 fusion peptide to host membranes

  • During infection the SARS-CoV-2 virus fuses its viral envelope with cellular membranes of its human host. Initial contact with the host cell and membrane fusion are both mediated by the viral spike (S) protein. Proteolytic cleavage of S at the S2′ site exposes its 40 amino acid long fusion peptide (FP). Binding of the FP to the host membrane anchors the S2 domain of S in both the viral and the host membrane. The reorganization of S2 then pulls the two membranes together. Here we use molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to study the two core functions of the SARS-CoV-2 FP: to attach quickly to cellular membranes and to form an anchor strong enough to withstand the mechanical force during membrane fusion. In eight 10 μs-long MD simulations of FP in proximity to endosomal and plasma membranes, we find that FP binds spontaneously to the membranes and that binding proceeds predominantly by insertion of two short amphipathic helices into the membrane interface. Connected via a flexible linker, the two helices can bind the membrane independently, yet binding of one promotes the binding of the other by tethering it close to the target membrane. By simulating mechanical pulling forces acting on the C-terminus of the FP we then show that the bound FP can bear forces up to 250 pN before detaching from the membrane. This detachment force is more than ten-fold higher than an estimate of the force required to pull host and viral membranes together for fusion. We identify a fully conserved disulfide bridge in the FP as a major factor for the high mechanical stability of the FP membrane anchor. We conclude, first, that the sequential binding of two short amphipathic helices allows the SARS-CoV-2 FP to insert quickly into the target membrane, before the virion is swept away after shedding the S1 domain connecting it to the host cell receptor. Second, we conclude that the double attachment and the conserved disulfide bridge establish the strong anchoring required for subsequent membrane fusion. Multiple distinct membrane-anchoring elements ensure high avidity and high mechanical strength of FP-membrane binding.

Download full text files

Export metadata

Author:Stefan L. SchäferORCiD, Hendrik JungORCiD, Gerhard HummerORCiD
Parent Title (English):bioRxiv
Document Type:Preprint
Date of Publication (online):2021/05/10
Date of first Publication:2021/05/10
Publishing Institution:Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg
Release Date:2023/04/19
Page Number:26
Dewey Decimal Classification:5 Naturwissenschaften und Mathematik / 57 Biowissenschaften; Biologie / 570 Biowissenschaften; Biologie
6 Technik, Medizin, angewandte Wissenschaften / 61 Medizin und Gesundheit / 610 Medizin und Gesundheit
Licence (German):License LogoCreative Commons - CC BY-NC-ND - Namensnennung - Nicht kommerziell - Keine Bearbeitungen 4.0 International