Structure, Function, and Evolution of Coronavirus Spike Proteins

Annu Rev Virol. 2016 Sep 29;3(1):237-261. doi: 10.1146/annurev-virology-110615-042301. Epub 2016 Aug 25.


The coronavirus spike protein is a multifunctional molecular machine that mediates coronavirus entry into host cells. It first binds to a receptor on the host cell surface through its S1 subunit and then fuses viral and host membranes through its S2 subunit. Two domains in S1 from different coronaviruses recognize a variety of host receptors, leading to viral attachment. The spike protein exists in two structurally distinct conformations, prefusion and postfusion. The transition from prefusion to postfusion conformation of the spike protein must be triggered, leading to membrane fusion. This article reviews current knowledge about the structures and functions of coronavirus spike proteins, illustrating how the two S1 domains recognize different receptors and how the spike proteins are regulated to undergo conformational transitions. I further discuss the evolution of these two critical functions of coronavirus spike proteins, receptor recognition and membrane fusion, in the context of the corresponding functions from other viruses and host cells.

Keywords: coronavirus spike protein; membrane fusion; postfusion conformation; prefusion conformation; receptor binding; virus evolution; virus origin.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Coronavirus / metabolism*
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Humans
  • Membrane Fusion / physiology*
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / metabolism
  • Receptors, Virus / metabolism*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / genetics
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / metabolism*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / ultrastructure
  • Viral Envelope Proteins / metabolism
  • Virus Attachment*
  • Virus Internalization


  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Receptors, Virus
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • Viral Envelope Proteins