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Comparing Viruses to Better Understand COVID-19

Binding interface of electrostatic interactions have been recognized as an important factor for protein-protein recognition.

Investigators from the University of Texas at El paso (UTEP), in collaboration with Howard University, have discovered key differences between Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and SARS-CoV-2, which causes the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Findings from the study were published in the journal Frontiers in Molecular Biosciences.

By comparing variants from both viruses and their underlying mechanisms, the investigators were able to uncover valuable data that lead to a better understanding of how they attack the human body.

"We found that because of mutations, the binding from SARS-CoV-2 to the human cell is much stronger compared with SARS-CoV," Lin Li, an assistant professor of physics at UTEP and author on the study said."This might be one of the reasons why SARS-CoV-2 is spreading much faster and is difficult to control.”

“SARS-CoV-2 also uses a much smarter strategy to attack the human cell than SARS-CoV. For example, when SARS-CoV infects or binds to the human cell, it uses several key residues or amino acids to do so, while SARS-CoV-2 uses more residues, making it more robust and easier to completely hijack the human cell.”

The research focused on examining the virus’ spike protein, 1 of 4 main proteins that initiate an infection, by calculating and analyzing the 2 viruses. The team found an interesting change in the mechanism by which the spike protein binds in SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2.

"The binding domain needs to flip out so that it can bind to the human cell, but we found some strange mutations that happened,” Li said. “Like the hinge of a door, the binding domain may affect the flip mechanism of SARS-CoV-2. It may be more flexible, making it easier to bind to the human cell.”

The team plans for future research expanding on their findings, centering their attention on the 4 proteins to gain a more comprehensive understanding of their inner mechanisms and how they work. They hope this research will aid in combatting COVID-19 and other related viruses.

"We are very excited and interested in the timely work that Dr. Li and his collaborators have reported," Robert Kirken, dean of UTEP's College of Science said. "As the SARS-COV2 continues to evolve through its passage by infected humans, the rapid identification and assessment of these mutants using the research and testing approaches they have established will be critically important for the development of new vaccines and therapeutics."