Influence of hydrophobic and electrostatic residues on SARS-coronavirus S2 protein stability: insights into mechanisms of general viral fusion and inhibitor design

Halil Aydin, Dina Al-Khooly, Jeffrey E Lee
Protein Science 2014, 23 (5): 603-17
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is an acute respiratory disease caused by the SARS-coronavirus (SARS-CoV). SARS-CoV entry is facilitated by the spike protein (S), which consists of an N-terminal domain (S1) responsible for cellular attachment and a C-terminal domain (S2) that mediates viral and host cell membrane fusion. The SARS-CoV S2 is a potential drug target, as peptidomimetics against S2 act as potent fusion inhibitors. In this study, site-directed mutagenesis and thermal stability experiments on electrostatic, hydrophobic, and polar residues to dissect their roles in stabilizing the S2 postfusion conformation was performed. It was shown that unlike the pH-independent retroviral fusion proteins, SARS-CoV S2 is stable over a wide pH range, supporting its ability to fuse at both the plasma membrane and endosome. A comprehensive SARS-CoV S2 analysis showed that specific hydrophobic positions at the C-terminal end of the HR2, rather than electrostatics are critical for fusion protein stabilization. Disruption of the conserved C-terminal hydrophobic residues destabilized the fusion core and reduced the melting temperature by 30°C. The importance of the C-terminal hydrophobic residues led us to identify a 42-residue substructure on the central core that is structurally conserved in all existing CoV S2 fusion proteins (root mean squared deviation=0.4 Å). This is the first study to identify such a conserved substructure and likely represents a common foundation to facilitate viral fusion. We have discussed the role of key residues in the design of fusion inhibitors and the potential of the substructure as a general target for the development of novel therapeutics against CoV infections.

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