Combatting COVID-19 with crystallography and cryo-EM

Crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy are vital tools in the fight against COVID-19, allowing researchers to reveal the molecular structures and functions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, paving the way for new drugs and vaccines. Since the start of the pandemic, the ESRF has mobilised its crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy expertise and made its new Extremely Brilliant Source available as part of the collective effort to address this critical global health challenge.

When the WHO declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern in early 2020, it signalled the start of a race against time for scientists to understand how the newly identified SARS-CoV-2 virus functioned and to develop treatments for the disease. Structural biologists around the world pitched in, determining the structures of most of the 28 proteins encoded by the novel coronavirus. This remarkable collective effort resulted in over a thousand 3D structural models of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 proteins deposited in the Protein Data Bank (PDB) public archive in just one year [1]. Researchers and drug developers rely on these models to design antiviral drugs, therapies and vaccines. However, the speed and urgency with which the SARS-CoV-2 protein structures were solved means that errors could inevitably slip in, with potentially severe consequences for drug designers targeting certain parts of the virus’s structure. 

Enter the Coronavirus Structural Task Force, an international team of 25 structural biologists offering their time and expertise to fix errors in structural models of the virus’s proteins in order to give drug designers the best possible templates to work from. Gianluca Santoni, crystallography data scientist in the ESRF’s structural biology group, is part of the task force, whose work is detailed in an article recently published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology [2]. “Every week, we check the PDB for any new protein structure related to SARS-CoV-2,” he explains. “We push structural biology tools and methods to the limit to get every last bit of information from the data, to evaluate the quality and improve the models where possible.” 

To read more visit the ESRF website

Image: The coronavirus research project ‘COVNSP3’ is based on the use of the ESRF’s cryo-electron microscope facility, led by Eaazhisai Kandiah (pictured)

Credit: ESRF/S. Cande.