Structure of the nCoV trimeric spike
The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak of a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) to be a public health emergency of international concern. The virus binds to host cells through its trimeric spike glycoprotein, making this protein a key target for potential therapies and diagnostics. Wrapp et al. determined a 3.5-angstrom-resolution structure of the 2019-nCoV trimeric spike protein by cryo–electron microscopy. Using biophysical assays, the authors show that this protein binds at least 10 times more tightly than the corresponding spike protein of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)–CoV to their common host cell receptor. They also tested three antibodies known to bind to the SARS-CoV spike protein but did not detect binding to the 2019-nCoV spike protein. These studies provide valuable information to guide the development of medical counter-measures for 2019-nCoV.
Science, this issue p. 1260
The outbreak of a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) represents a pandemic threat that has been declared a public health emergency of international concern. The CoV spike (S) glycoprotein is a key target for vaccines, therapeutic antibodies, and diagnostics. To facilitate medical countermeasure development, we determined a 3.5-angstrom-resolution cryo–electron microscopy structure of the 2019-nCoV S trimer in the prefusion conformation. The predominant state of the trimer has one of the three receptor-binding domains (RBDs) rotated up in a receptor-accessible conformation. We also provide biophysical and structural evidence that the 2019-nCoV S protein binds angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) with higher affinity than does severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-CoV S. Additionally, we tested several published SARS-CoV RBD-specific monoclonal antibodies and found that they do not have appreciable binding to 2019-nCoV S, suggesting that antibody cross-reactivity may be limited between the two RBDs. The structure of 2019-nCoV S should enable the rapid development and evaluation of medical countermeasures to address the ongoing public health crisis.
The novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV has recently emerged as a human pathogen in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, causing fever, severe respiratory illness, and pneumonia—a disease recently named COVID-19 (1, 2). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 16 February 2020, there had been >51,000 confirmed cases globally, leading to at least 1600 deaths. The emerging pathogen was rapidly characterized as a new member of the betacoronavirus genus, closely related to several bat coronaviruses and to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) (3, 4). Compared with SARS-CoV, 2019-nCoV appears to be more readily transmitted from human to human, spreading to multiple continents and leading to the WHO’s declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on 30 January 2020 (1, 5, 6).
2019-nCoV makes use of a densely glycosylated spike (S) protein to gain entry into host cells. The S protein is a trimeric class I fusion protein that exists in a metastable prefusion conformation that undergoes a substantial structural rearrangement to fuse the viral membrane with the host cell membrane (7, 8). This process is triggered when the S1 subunit binds to a host cell receptor. Receptor binding destabilizes the prefusion trimer, resulting in shedding of the S1 subunit and transition of the S2 subunit to a stable postfusion conformation (9). To engage a host cell receptor, the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of S1 undergoes hinge-like conformational movements that transiently hide or expose the determinants of receptor binding. These two states are referred to as the “down” conformation and the “up” conformation, where down corresponds to the receptor-inaccessible state and up corresponds to the receptor-accessible state, which is thought to be less stable (10–13). Because of the indispensable function of the S protein, it represents a target for antibody-mediated neutralization, and characterization of the prefusion S structure would provide atomic-level information to guide vaccine design and development.
Based on the first reported genome sequence of 2019-nCoV (4), we expressed ectodomain residues 1 to 1208 of 2019-nCoV S, adding two stabilizing proline mutations in the C-terminal S2 fusion machinery using a previous stabilization strategy that proved effective for other betacoronavirus S proteins (11, 14). Figure 1A shows the domain organization of the expression construct, and figure S1 shows the purification process. We obtained ~0.5 mg/liter of the recombinant prefusion-stabilized S ectodomain from FreeStyle 293 cells and purified the protein to homogeneity by affinity chromatography and size-exclusion chromatography (fig. S1). Cryo–electron microscopy (cryo-EM) grids were prepared using this purified, fully glycosylated S protein, and preliminary screening revealed a high particle density with little aggregation near the edges of the holes.
(A) Schematic of 2019-nCoV S primary structure colored by domain. Domains that were excluded from the ectodomain expression construct or could not be visualized in the final map are colored white. SS, signal sequence; S2′, S2′ protease cleavage site; FP, fusion peptide; HR1, heptad repeat 1; CH, central helix; CD, connector domain; HR2, heptad repeat 2; TM, transmembrane domain; CT, cytoplasmic tail. Arrows denote protease cleavage sites. (B) Side and top views of the prefusion structure of the 2019-nCoV S protein with a single RBD in the up conformation. The two RBD down protomers are shown as cryo-EM density in either white or gray and the RBD up protomer is shown in ribbons colored corresponding to the schematic in (A).
After collecting and processing 3207 micrograph movies, we obtained a 3.5-Å-resolution three-dimensional (3D) reconstruction of an asymmetrical trimer in which a single RBD was observed in the up conformation. (Fig. 1B, fig. S2, and table S1). Because of the small size of the RBD (~21 kDa), the asymmetry of this conformation was not readily apparent until ab initio 3D reconstruction and classification were performed (Fig. 1B and fig. S3). By using the 3D variability feature in cryoSPARC v2 (15), we observed breathing of the S1 subunits as the RBD underwent a hinge-like movement, which likely contributed to the relatively poor local resolution of S1 compared with the more stable S2 subunit (movies S1 and S2). This seemingly stochastic RBD movement has been captured during structural characterization of the closely related betacoronaviruses SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, as well as the more distantly related alphacoronavirus porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) (10, 11, 13, 16). The observation of this phenomenon in 2019-nCoV S suggests that it shares the same mechanism of triggering that is thought to be conserved among the Coronaviridae, wherein receptor binding to exposed RBDs leads to an unstable three-RBD up conformation that results in shedding of S1 and refolding of S2 (11, 12).
Because the S2 subunit appeared to be a symmetric trimer, we performed a 3D refinement imposing C3 symmetry, resulting in a 3.2-Å-resolution map with excellent density for the S2 subunit. Using both maps, we built most of the 2019-nCoV S ectodomain, including glycans at 44 of the 66 N-linked glycosylation sites per trimer (fig. S4). Our final model spans S residues 27 to 1146, with several flexible loops omitted. Like all previously reported coronavirus S ectodomain structures, the density for 2019-nCoV S begins to fade after the connector domain, reflecting the flexibility of the heptad repeat 2 domain in the prefusion conformation (fig. S4A) (13, 16–18).
The overall structure of 2019-nCoV S resembles that of SARS-CoV S, with a root mean square deviation (RMSD) of 3.8 Å over 959 Cα atoms (Fig. 2A). One of the larger differences between these two structures (although still relatively minor) is the position of the RBDs in their respective down conformations. Whereas the SARS-CoV RBD in the down conformation packs tightly against the N-terminal domain (NTD) of the neighboring protomer, the 2019-nCoV RBD in the down conformation is angled closer to the central cavity of the trimer (Fig. 2B). Despite this observed conformational difference, when the individual structural domains of 2019-nCoV S are aligned to their counterparts from SARS-CoV S, they reflect the high degree of structural homology between the two proteins, with the NTDs, RBDs, subdomains 1 and 2 (SD1 and SD2), and S2 subunits yielding individual RMSD values of 2.6 Å, 3.0 Å, 2.7 Å, and 2.0 Å, respectively (Fig. 2C).