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Optimization of quenched fluorescent peptide substrates of SARS-CoV-2 3CL pro main protease (Mpro) from proteomic identification of P6-P6' active site specificity.

SARS-CoV-2 3C-like main protease (3CLpro ) is essential for protein excision from the viral polyprotein. 3CLpro inhibitor drug development to block SARS-CoV-2 replication focuses on the catalytic non-prime (P) side for specificity and potency, but the importance of the prime (P') side in substrate specificity and for drug development remains underappreciated. We determined the P6-P6' specificity for 3CLpro from >800 cleavage sites that we identified using Proteomic Identification of Cleavage site Specificity (PICS). Cleavage occurred after the canonical P1-Gln and non-canonical P1-His and P1-Met residues. Moreover, P3 showed a preference for Arg/Lys and P3' for His. Essential H-bonds between the N-terminal Ser1 of protomer-B in 3CLpro dimers form with P1-His, but not with P1-Met. Nonetheless, cleavage occurs at P1-Met456 in native MAP4K5. Elevated reactive oxygen species in SARS-CoV-2 infection oxidize methionines. Molecular simulations revealed P1-MetOX forms an H-bond with Ser1 and notably, strong positive cooperativity between P1-Met with P3'-His was revealed, which enhanced peptide-cleavage rates. The highly plastic S3' subsite accommodates P3'-His that displays stabilizing backbone H-bonds with Thr25 lying central in a "'threonine trio" (Thr24-Thr25-Thr26) in the P'-binding domain I. Molecular docking simulations unveiled structure-activity relationships impacting 3CLpro -substrate interactions, and the role of these structural determinants was confirmed by MALDI-TOF-MS cleavage assays of P1'- and P3'-positional scanning peptide libraries carrying a 2nd optimal cut-site as an internal positive control. These data informed the design of two new and highly soluble 3CLpro quenched-fluorescent peptide substrates for improved FRET monitoring of 3CLpro activity with 15× improved sensitivity over current assays.IMPORTANCEFrom global proteomics identification of >800 cleavage sites, we characterized the P6-P6' active site specificity of SARS-CoV-2 3CLpro using proteome-derived peptide library screens, molecular modeling simulations, and focussed positional peptide libraries. In P1', we show that alanine and serine are cleaved 3× faster than glycine and the hydrophobic small amino acids Leu, Ile, or Val prevent cleavage of otherwise optimal non-prime sequences. In characterizing non-canonical non-prime P1 specificity, we explored the unusual P1-Met specificity, discovering enhanced cleavage when in the oxidized state (P1-MetOX ). We unveiled unexpected amino acid cooperativity at P1-Met with P3'-His and noncanonical P1-His with P2-Phe, and the importance of the threonine trio (Thr24-Thr25-Thr26) in the prime side binding domain I in defining prime side binding in SARS-CoV-2 3CLpro . From these analyses, we rationally designed quenched-fluorescence natural amino acid peptide substrates with >15× improved sensitivity and high peptide solubility, facilitating handling and application for screening of new antiviral drugs.

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