Posts Tagged ‘cryo-electron microscopy’

Cryo-EM disclosed how the D614G mutation changes SARS-CoV-2 spike protein structure.

Reporter: Dr. Premalata Pati, Ph.D., Postdoc

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has had a major impact on human health globally; infecting a massive quantity of people around 136,046,262 (John Hopkins University); causing severe disease and associated long-term health sequelae; resulting in death and excess mortality, especially among older and prone populations; altering routine healthcare services; disruptions to travel, trade, education, and many other societal functions; and more broadly having a negative impact on peoples physical and mental health.

It’s need of the hour to answer the questions like what allows the variants of SARS-CoV-2 first detected in the UK, South Africa, and Brazil to spread so quickly? How can current COVID-19 vaccines better protect against them?

Scientists from the Harvard Medical School and the Boston Children’s Hospital help answer these urgent questions. The team reports its findings in the journal “Science a paper entitled Structural impact on SARS-CoV-2 spike protein by D614G substitution. The mutation rate of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has rapidly evolved over the past few months, especially at the Spike (S) protein region of the virus, where the maximum number of mutations have been observed by the virologists.

Bing Chen, HMS professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s, and colleagues analyzed the changes in the structure of the spike proteins with the genetic change by D614G mutation by all three variants. Hence they assessed the structure of the coronavirus spike protein down to the atomic level and revealed the reason for the quick spreading of these variants.

This model shows the structure of the spike protein in its closed configuration, in its original D614 form (left) and its mutant form (G614). In the mutant spike protein, the 630 loop (in red) stabilizes the spike, preventing it from flipping open prematurely and rendering SARS-CoV-2 more infectious.

Fig. 1. Cryo-EM structures of the full-length SARS-CoV-2 S protein carrying G614.

(A) Three structures of the G614 S trimer, representing a closed, three RBD-down conformation, an RBD-intermediate conformation and a one RBD-up conformation, were modeled based on corresponding cryo-EM density maps at 3.1-3.5Å resolution. Three protomers (a, b, c) are colored in red, blue and green, respectively. RBD locations are indicated. (B) Top views of superposition of three structures of the G614 S in (A) in ribbon representation with the structure of the prefusion trimer of the D614 S (PDB ID: 6XR8), shown in yellow. NTD and RBD of each protomer are indicated. Side views of the superposition are shown in fig. S8.

IMAGE SOURCE: Bing Chen, Ph.D., Boston Children’s Hospital, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2021/03/16/science.abf2303

The work

The mutant spikes were imaged by Cryo-Electron microscopy (cryo-EM), which has resolution down to the atomic level. They found that the D614G mutation (substitution of in a single amino acid “letter” in the genetic code for the spike protein) makes the spike more stable as compared with the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. As a result, more functional spikes are available to bind to our cells’ ACE2 receptors, making the virus more contagious.

Fig. 2. Cryo-EM revealed how the D614G mutation changes SARS-CoV-2 spike protein structure.

IMAGE SOURCE:  Zhang J, et al., Science

Say the original virus has 100 spikes,” Chen explained. “Because of the shape instability, you may have just 50 percent of them functional. In the G614 variants, you may have 90 percent that is functional. So even though they don’t bind as well, the chances are greater and you will have an infection

Forthcoming directions by Bing Chen and Team

The findings suggest the current approved COVID-19 vaccines and any vaccines in the works should include the genetic code for this mutation. Chen has quoted:

Since most of the vaccines so far—including the Moderna, Pfizer–BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca vaccines are based on the original spike protein, adding the D614G mutation could make the vaccines better able to elicit protective neutralizing antibodies against the viral variants

Chen proposes that redesigned vaccines incorporate the code for this mutant spike protein. He believes the more stable spike shape should make any vaccine based on the spike more likely to elicit protective antibodies. Chen also has his sights set on therapeutics. He and his colleagues are further applying structural biology to better understand how SARS-CoV-2 binds to the ACE2 receptor. That could point the way to drugs that would block the virus from gaining entry to our cells.

In January, the team showed that a structurally engineered “decoy” ACE2 protein binds to SARS-CoV-2 200 times more strongly than the body’s own ACE2. The decoy potently inhibited the virus in cell culture, suggesting it could be an anti-COVID-19 treatment. Chen is now working to advance this research into animal models.

Main Source:


Substitution for aspartic acid by glycine at position 614 in the spike (S) protein of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 appears to facilitate rapid viral spread. The G614 strain and its recent variants are now the dominant circulating forms. We report here cryo-EM structures of a full-length G614 S trimer, which adopts three distinct prefusion conformations differing primarily by the position of one receptor-binding domain. A loop disordered in the D614 S trimer wedges between domains within a protomer in the G614 spike. This added interaction appears to prevent premature dissociation of the G614 trimer, effectively increasing the number of functional spikes and enhancing infectivity, and to modulate structural rearrangements for membrane fusion. These findings extend our understanding of viral entry and suggest an improved immunogen for vaccine development.


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Comparing COVID-19 Vaccine Schedule Combinations, or “Com-COV” – First-of-its-Kind Study will explore the Impact of using eight different Combinations of Doses and Dosing Intervals for Different COVID-19 Vaccines

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Zika and neurone disorder

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator


Zika virus impairs growth in human neurospheres and brain organoids

Since the emergence of Zika virus (ZIKV), reports of microcephaly have increased significantly in Brazil; however, causality between the viral epidemic and malformations in fetal brains needs further confirmation. Here, we examine the effects of ZIKV infection in human neural stem cells growing as neurospheres and brain organoids. Using immunocytochemistry and electron microscopy, we show that ZIKV targets human brain cells, reducing their viability and growth as neurospheres and brain organoids. These results suggest that ZIKV abrogates neurogenesis during human brain development.

Primary microcephaly is a severe brain malformation characterized by the reduction of the head circumference. Patients display a heterogeneous range of brain impairments, compromising motor, visual, hearing and cognitive functions (1).

Microcephaly is associated with decreased neuronal production as a consequence of proliferative defects and death of cortical progenitor cells (2). During pregnancy, the primary etiology of microcephaly varies from genetic mutations to external insults. The so-called TORCHS factors (Toxoplasmosis, Rubella, Cytomegalovirus, Herpes virus, Syphilis) are the main congenital infections that compromise brain development in utero (3).

The increase in the rate of microcephaly in Brazil has been associated with the recent outbreak of Zika virus (ZIKV) (4, 5), a flavivirus that is transmitted by mosquitoes (6) and sexually (79). So far, ZIKV has been described in the placenta and amniotic fluid of microcephalic fetuses (1013), and in the blood of microcephalic newborns (11, 14). ZIKV had also been detected within the brain of a microcephalic fetus (13, 14), and recently, there is direct evidence that ZIKV is able to infect and cause death of neural stem cells (15).

Here, we used human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells cultured as neural stem cells (NSC), neurospheres and brain organoids to explore the consequences of ZIKV infection during neurogenesis and growth with 3D culture models. Human iPS-derived NSCs were exposed to ZIKV (MOI 0.25 to 0.0025). After 24 hours, ZIKV was detected in NSCs (Fig. 1, A to D), when viral envelope protein was shown in 10.10% (MOI 0.025) and 21.7% (MOI 0.25) of cells exposed to ZIKV (Fig. 1E). Viral RNA was also detected in the supernatant of infected NSCs (MOI 0.0025) by qRT-PCR (Fig. 1F), supporting productive infection.

Fig. 1ZIKV infects human neural stem cells.

Confocal microscopy images of iPS-derived NSCs double stained for (A) ZIKV in the cytoplasm, and (B) SOX2 in nuclei, one day after virus infection. (C) DAPI staining, (D) merged channels show perinuclear localization of ZIKV. Bar = 100 μm. (E) Percentage of ZIKV infected SOX2 positive cells (MOI 0.25 and 0.025). (F) RT-PCR analysis of ZIKV RNA extracted from supernatants of mock and ZIKV-infected neurospheres (MOI 0.0025) after 3 DIV, showing amplification only in infected cells. RNA was extracted, qPCR performed and virus production normalized to 12h post-infection controls. Data presented as mean ± SEM, n=5, Student’s t test, *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

To investigate the effects of ZIKV during neural differentiation, mock- and ZIKV-infected NSCs were cultured as neurospheres. After 3 days in vitro, mock NSCs generated round neurospheres. However, ZIKV-infected NSCs generated neurospheres with morphological abnormalities and cell detachment (Fig. 2B). After 6 days in vitro (DIV), hundreds of neurospheres grew under mock conditions (Fig. 2, C and E). Strikingly, in ZIKV-infected NSCs (MOI 2.5 to 0.025) only a few neurospheres survived (Fig. 2, D and E).

Fig. 2ZIKV alters morphology and halts the growth of human neurospheres.

(A) Control neurosphere displays spherical morphology after 3 DIV. (B) Infected neurosphere showed morphological abnormalities and cell detachment after 3 DIV. (C) Culture well-plate containing hundreds of mock neurospheres after 6 DIV. (D) ZIKV-infected well-plate (MOI 2.5-0.025) containing few neurospheres after 6 DIV. Bar = 250 μm in (A) and (B), and 1 cm in (C) and (D). (E) Quantification of the number of neurospheres in different MOI. Data presented as mean ± SEM, n=3, Student’s t test, ***p < 0.01.

Mock neurospheres presented expected ultrastructural morphology of nucleus and mitochondria (Fig. 3A). ZIKV-infected neurospheres revealed the presence of viral particles, similarly to those observed in murine glial and neuronal cells (16). ZIKV was bound to the membranes and observed in mitochondria and vesicles of cells within infected neurospheres (Fig. 3, B and F, arrows). Apoptotic nuclei, a hallmark of cell death, were observed in all ZIKV-infected neurospheres analyzed (Fig. 3B). Of note, ZIKV-infected cells in neurospheres presented smooth membrane structures (SMS) (Fig. 3, B and F), similarly to those previously described in other cell types infected with dengue virus (17). These results suggest that ZIKV induces cell death in human neural stem cells and thus impairs the formation of neurospheres.

Fig. 3ZIKV induces death in human neurospheres.

Ultrastructure of mock- and ZIKV-infected neurospheres after 6 days in vitro. (A) Mock-infected neurosphere showing cell processes and organelles, (B) ZIKV-infected neurosphere shows pyknotic nucleus, swollen mitochondria, smooth membrane structures and viral envelopes (arrow). Arrows point viral envelopes on cell surface (C), inside mitochondria (D), endoplasmic reticulum (E) and close to smooth membrane structures (F). Bar = 1 μm in (A) and (B) and 0.2 μm in (C) to (F). m = mitochondria; n = nucleus; sms = smooth membrane structures.

To further investigate the impact of ZIKV infection during neurogenesis, human iPS-derived brain organoids (18) were exposed with ZIKV, and followed for 11 days in vitro (Fig. 4). The growth rate of 12 individual organoids (6 per condition) was measured during this period (Fig. 4, A and D). As a result of ZIKV infection, the average growth area of ZIKV-exposed organoids was reduced by 40% when compared to brain organoids under mock conditions (0.624 mm2 ± 0.064 ZIKV-exposed organoids versus 1.051 mm2 ± 0.1084 mock-infected organoids normalized, Fig. 4E).

Fig. 4ZIKV reduces the growth rate of human brain organoids.

35 days old brain organoids were infected with (A) MOCK and (B) ZIKV for 11 days in vitro. ZIKV-infected brain organoids show reduction in growth compared with MOCK. Arrows point to detached cells. Organoid area was measured before and after 11 days exposure with (C) MOCK and (D) ZIKV in vitro. Plotted quantification represent the growth rate. (E) Quantification of the average of mock- and ZIKV-infected organoid area 11 days after infection in vitro. Data presented as mean ± SEM, n=6, Student’s ttest, *p < 0.05.

In addition to MOCK infection, we used dengue virus 2 (DENV2), a flavivirus with genetic similarities to ZIKV (11, 19), as an additional control group. One day after viral exposure, DENV2 infected human NSCs with a similar rate as ZIKV (fig. S1, A and B). However, after 3 days in vitro, there was no increase in caspase 3/7 mediated cell death induced by DENV2 with the same 0.025 MOI adopted for ZIKV infection (fig. S1, C and D). On the other hand, ZIKV induced caspase 3/7 mediated cell death in NSCs, similarly to the results described by Tang and colleagues (15). After 6 days in vitro, there is a significant difference in cell viability between ZIKV-exposed NSCs compared to DENV2-exposed NSCs (fig. S1, E and F). In addition, neurospheres exposed to DENV2 display a round morphology such as uninfected neurospheres after 6 days in vitro (fig. S1G). Finally, there was no reduction of growth in brain organoids exposed to DENV2 for 11 days compared to MOCK (1.023 mm2 ± 0.1308 DENV2-infected organoids versus 1.011 mm2 ± 0.2471 mock-infected organoids normalized, fig. S1, H and I). These results suggest that the deleterious consequences of ZIKV infection in human NSCs, neurospheres and brain organoids are not a general feature of the flavivirus family. Neurospheres and brain organoids are complementary models to study embryonic brain development in vitro (20, 21). While neurospheres present the very early characteristics of neurogenesis, brain organoids recapitulate the orchestrated cellular and molecular early events comparable to the first trimester fetal neocortex, including gene expression and cortical layering (18, 22). Our results demonstrate that ZIKV induces cell death in human iPS-derived neural stem cells, disrupts the formation of neurospheres and reduces the growth of organoids (fig. S2), indicating that ZIKV infection in models that mimics the first trimester of brain development may result in severe damage. Other studies are necessary to further characterize the consequences of ZIKV infection during different stages of fetal development.

Cell death impairing brain enlargement, calcification and microcephaly is well described in congenital infections with TORCHS (3, 23, 24). Our results, together with recent reports showing brain calcification in microcephalic fetuses and newborns infected with ZIKV (10, 14) reinforce the growing body of evidence connecting congenital ZIKV outbreak to the increased number of reports of brain malformations in Brazil.

Supplementary Materials


Materials and Methods

Figs. S1 and S2

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Zika Virus Tied to MS-Like Brain Disorder


Scientists report that the Zika virus may be associated with an autoimmune disorder that attacks the brain’s myelin similar to multiple sclerosis (MS). The investigators will discuss the results of their research at the upcoming American Academy of Neurology’s 68th Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada.

“Though our study is small, it may provide evidence that in this case the virus has different effects on the brain than those identified in current studies,” said study author Maria Lucia Brito Ferreira, M.D., with Restoration Hospital in Recife, Brazil. “Much more research will need to be done to explore whether there is a causal link between Zika and these brain problems.”

For the study, researchers followed people who came to the hospital in Recife from December 2014 to June 2015 with symptoms compatible with arboviruses, the family of viruses that includes Zika, dengue, and chikungunya. Six people then developed neurologic symptoms that were consistent with autoimmune disorders and underwent exams and blood tests. The authors saw 151 cases with neurological manifestations during a period of December 2014 to December 2015.

All of the people came to the hospital with fever followed by a rash. Some also had severe itching, muscle and joint pain, and red eyes. The neurologic symptoms started right away for some people and up to 15 days later for others.

Of the six people who had neurologic problems, two of the people developed acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), a swelling of the brain and spinal cord that attacks the myelin. In both cases, brain scans showed signs of damage to the brain’s white matter. Unlike MS, ADEM usually consists of a single attack that most people recover from within 6 months. In some cases, the disease can reoccur. Four of the people developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a syndrome that involves myelin of the peripheral nervous system and has a previously reported association with the Zika virus.

When they were discharged from the hospital, five of the six people still had problems with motor functioning. One person had vision problems and one had problems with memory and thinking skills. Tests showed that the participants all had Zika virus. Tests for dengue and chikungunya were negative.

“This doesn’t mean that all people infected with Zika will experience these brain problems. Of those who have nervous system problems, most do not have brain symptoms,” said Dr. Ferreira. “However, our study may shed light on possible lingering effects the virus may be associated with in the brain.”

“At present, it does not seem that ADEM cases are occurring at a similarly high incidence as the GBS cases, but these findings from Brazil suggest that clinicians should be vigilant for the possible occurrence of ADEM and other immune-mediated illnesses of the central nervous system,” noted James Sejvar, M.D., with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “Of course, the remaining question is ‘why’—why does Zika virus appear to have this strong association with GBS and potentially other immune/inflammatory diseases of the nervous system? Hopefully, ongoing investigations of Zika virus and immune-mediated neurologic disease will shed additional light on this important question.”

Zika Virus Structure Revealed


Team at Purdue becomes the first to determine the structure of the Zika virus, which reveals insights critical to the development of effective antiviral treatments and vaccines.

The team also identified regions within the Zika virus structure where it differs from other flaviviruses, the family of viruses to which Zika belongs that includes dengue, West Nile, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and tick-borne encephalitic viruses.

Any regions within the virus structure unique to Zika have the potential to explain differences in how a virus is transmitted and how it manifests as a disease, said Richard Kuhn, director of the Purdue Institute for Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Diseases (PI4D) who led the research team with Michael Rossmann, Purdue’s Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences.

“The structure of the virus provides a map that shows potential regions of the virus that could be targeted by a therapeutic treatment, used to create an effective vaccine or to improve our ability to diagnose and distinguish Zika infection from that of other related viruses,” said Kuhn, who also is head of Purdue’s Department of Biological Sciences. “Determining the structure greatly advances our understanding of Zika – a virus about which little is known. It illuminates the most promising areas for further testing and research to combat infection.”

The Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease, has recently been associated with a birth defect called microcephaly that causes brain damage and an abnormally small head in babies born to mothers infected during pregnancy. It also has been associated with the autoimmune disease Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can lead to temporary paralysis. In the majority of infected individuals symptoms are mild and include fever, skin rashes and flulike illness, according to the World Health Organization.

Zika virus transmission has been reported in 33 countries. Of the countries where Zika virus is circulating 12 have reported an increased incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome, and Brazil and French Polynesia have reported an increase in microcephaly, according to WHO. In February WHO declared the Zika virus to be “a public health emergency of international concern.”

“This breakthrough illustrates not only the importance of basic research to the betterment of human health, but also its nimbleness in quickly addressing a pressing global concern,” said Purdue President Mitch Daniels. “This talented team of researchers solved a very difficult puzzle in a remarkably short period of time, and have provided those working on developing vaccines and treatments to stop this virus a map to guide their way.”

Rossmann and Kuhn collaborated with Theodore Pierson, chief of the viral pathogenesis section of the Laboratory of Viral Diseases at the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Additional research team members include Purdue graduate student Devika Sirohi and postdoctoral research associates Zhenguo Chen, Lei Sun and Thomas Klose.

The team’s paper marks the first published success of the new Purdue Institute for Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Diseases in Purdue’s Discovery Park.

The university’s recently announced $250 million investment in the life sciences funded the purchase of advanced equipment that allowed the team to do in a couple of months what otherwise would have taken years, Rossmann said.

“We were able to determine through cryo-electron microscopy the virus structure at a resolution that previously would only have been possible through X-ray crystallography,” he said. “Since the 1950s X-ray crystallography has been the standard method for determining the structure of viruses, but it requires a relatively large amount of virus, which isn’t always available; it can be very difficult to do, especially for viruses like Zika that have a lipid membrane and don’t organize accurately in a crystal; and it takes a long time. Now, we can do it through electron microscopy and view the virus in a more native state. This was unthinkable only a few years ago.”

The team studied a strain of Zika virus isolated from a patient infected during the French Polynesia epidemic and determined the structure to 3.8Å. At this near-atomic resolution key features of the virus structure can be seen and groups of atoms that form specific chemical entities, such as those that represent one of 20 naturally occurring amino acids, can be recognized, Rossmann said.

The team found the structure to be very similar to that of other flaviviruses with an RNA genome surrounded by a lipid, or fatty, membrane inside an icosahedral protein shell.

The strong similarity with other flaviviruses was not surprising and is perhaps reassuring in terms of vaccine development already underway, but the subtle structural differences are possibly key, Sirohi said.

“Most viruses don’t invade the nervous system or the developing fetus due to blood-brain and placental barriers, but the association with improper brain development in fetuses suggest Zika does,” Sirohi said. “It is not clear how Zika gains access to these cells and infects them, but these areas of structural difference may be involved. These unique areas may be crucial and warrant further investigation.”

The team found that all of the known flavivirus structures differ in the amino acids that surround a glycosylation site in the virus shell. The shell is made up of 180 copies of two different proteins. These, like all proteins, are long chains of amino acids folded into particular structures to create a protein molecule, Rossmann said.

The glycosylation site where Zika virus differs from other flaviviruses protrudes from the surface of the virus. A carbohydrate molecule consisting of various sugars is attached to the viral protein surface at this site.

In many other viruses it has been shown that as the virus projects a glycosylation site outward, an attachment receptor molecule on the surface of a human cell recognizes the sugars and binds to them, Kuhn said.

The virus is like a menacing stranger luring an unsuspecting victim with the offer of sweet candy. The human cell gladly reaches out for the treat and then is caught by the virus, which, once attached, may initiate infection of that cell.

The glycosylation site and surrounding residues on Zika virus may also be involved in attachment to human cells, and the differences in the amino acids between different flaviviruses could signify differences in the kinds of molecules to which the virus can attach and the different human cells it can infect, Rossmann said.

“If this site functions as it does in dengue and is involved in attachment to human cells, it could be a good spot to target an antiviral compound,” Rossmann said. “If this is the case, perhaps an inhibitor could be designed to block this function and keep the virus from attaching to and infecting human cells.”

The team plans to pursue further testing to evaluate the different regions as targets for treatment and to develop potential therapeutic molecules, Kuhn said.

Kuhn and Rossmann have studied flaviviruses, the family of viruses to which Zika belongs, for more than 14 years. They were the first to map the structure of any flavivirus when they determined the dengue virus structure in 2002. In 2003 they were first to determine the structure of West Nile virus and now they are the first to do so with the Zika virus.

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