Powerful X-rays from SLAC’s synchrotron reveal that our immune system’s primary wiring seems to be no match for a brutal SARS-CoV-2 protein.
BY DAVID KRAUSE
Over the past two years, scientists have studied the SARS-CoV-2 virus in great detail, laying the foundation for developing COVID-19 vaccines and antiviral treatments. Now, for the first time, scientists at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have seen one of the virus’s most critical interactions, which could help researchers develop more precise treatments.
The team caught the moment when a virus protein, called Mpro, cuts a protective protein, known as NEMO, in an infected person. Without NEMO, an immune system is slower to respond to increasing viral loads or new infections. Seeing how Mpro attacks NEMO at the molecular level could inspire new therapeutic approaches.
To see how Mpro cuts NEMO, researchers funneled powerful X-rays from SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) onto crystallized samples of the protein complex. The X-rays struck the protein samples, revealing what Mpro looks like when it dismantles NEMO’s primary function of helping our immune system communicate.
“We saw that the virus protein cuts through NEMO as easily as sharp scissors through thin paper,” said co-senior author Soichi Wakatsuki, professor at SLAC and Stanford. “Imagine the bad things that happen when good proteins in our bodies start getting cut into pieces.”
The images from SSRL show the exact location of NEMO’s cut and provide the first structure of SARS-CoV-2 Mpro bound to a human protein.
“If you can block the sites where Mpro binds to NEMO, you can stop this cut from happening over and over,” SSRL lead scientist and co-author Irimpan Mathews said. “Stopping Mpro could slow down how fast the virus takes over a body. Solving the crystal structure revealed Mpro’s binding sites and was one of the first steps to stopping the protein.”
The research team from SLAC, DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and other institutions published their results today in Nature Communications.
Read more on the SLAC website