Exploring the pH dependence of the SARS-CoV-2 complete fusion domain and the role of its unique structural features
Daniel Birtles, Anna E. Oh, Jinwoo Lee
SARS-CoV-2 may enter target cells through the process of membrane fusion at either the plasma (~pH 7.4–7.0) or endosomal (~pH 6.5–5.0) membrane in order to deliver its genetic information. The fusion domain (FD) of the spike glycoprotein is responsible for initiating fusion and is thus integral to the viral life cycle. The FD of SARS-CoV-2 is unique in that it consists of two structurally distinctive regions referred to as the fusion peptide (FP) and the fusion loop (FL); yet the molecular mechanisms behind how this FD perturbs the membrane to initiate fusion remains unclear. In this study via solution NMR, we witnessed only a slight conformational change in the FD between pH 7.4 and pH 5.0, resulting in a minor elongation of helix 1. However, we found that the FD's ability to mediate membrane fusion has a large and significant pH dependence, with fusion events being more readily induced at low pH. Interestingly, a biphasic relationship between the environmental pH and fusogenicity was discovered, suggesting a preference for the FD to initiate fusion at the late endosomal membrane. Furthermore, the conserved disulfide bond and hydrophobic motif “LLF” were found to be critical for the function of the complete FD, with minimal activity witnessed when either was perturbed. In conclusion, these findings indicate that the SARS-CoV-2 FD preferably initiates fusion at a pH similar to the late endosome through a mechanism that heavily relies on the internal disulfide bond of the FL and hydrophobic LLF motif within the FP.
SARS-CoV-2, endosomal membrane, fusion peptide