Robert N. Kirchdoerfer 1 , Christopher A. Cottrell 1 , Nianshuang Wang 2 , Jesper Pallesen 1 , Hadi M. Yassine 3 , 4 , Hannah L. Turner 1 , Kizzmekia S. Corbett 3 , Barney S. Graham 3 , Jason S. McLellan , 2 , Andrew B. Ward , 1
2 March 2016
A 4.0 Å resolution cryo-electron microscopy structure of the pre-fusion form of the trimeric spike from the human coronavirus HKU1 provides insight into how the spike protein mediates host-cell attachment and membrane fusion.
Coronaviruses are responsible for respiratory infections worldwide, many of them mild, but also including severe pneumonia and the recent SARS and MERS outbreaks. The entry of coronaviruses into cells is mediated by the virus glycoprotein spike trimer, which contains the receptor-binding domain, as well as membrane fusion domains. Two papers published in this issue of Nature provide high-resolution (4Å) cryo-electron microscopy structures of pre-fusion coronavirus spike trimers. David Veesler and colleagues studied the trimer from murine hepatitis virus; Andrew Ward and colleagues used the human betacoronavirus HKU1, a cause of mild respiratory disease. The structures reveal mechanistic insights into the viral fusion process and architectural similarities to paramyxovirus F proteins, suggesting that these fusion proteins may have evolved from a distant common ancestor.
HKU1 is a human betacoronavirus that causes mild yet prevalent respiratory disease 1 , and is related to the zoonotic SARS 2 and MERS 3 betacoronaviruses, which have high fatality rates and pandemic potential. Cell tropism and host range is determined in part by the coronavirus spike (S) protein 4 , which binds cellular receptors and mediates membrane fusion. As the largest known class I fusion protein, its size and extensive glycosylation have hindered structural studies of the full ectodomain, thus preventing a molecular understanding of its function and limiting development of effective interventions. Here we present the 4.0 Å resolution structure of the trimeric HKU1 S protein determined using single-particle cryo-electron microscopy. In the pre-fusion conformation, the receptor-binding subunits, S1, rest above the fusion-mediating subunits, S2, preventing their conformational rearrangement. Surprisingly, the S1 C-terminal domains are interdigitated and form extensive quaternary interactions that occlude surfaces known in other coronaviruses to bind protein receptors. These features, along with the location of the two protease sites known to be important for coronavirus entry, provide a structural basis to support a model of membrane fusion mediated by progressive S protein destabilization through receptor binding and proteolytic cleavage. These studies should also serve as a foundation for the structure-based design of betacoronavirus vaccine immunogens.