Coronaviruses (CoVs) have a remarkable potential to change tropism. This is particularly illustrated over the last 15 years by the emergence of two zoonotic CoVs, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)- and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS)-CoV. Due to their inherent genetic variability, it is inevitable that new cross-species transmission events of these enveloped, positive-stranded RNA viruses will occur. Research into these medical and veterinary important pathogens-sparked by the SARS and MERS outbreaks-revealed important principles of inter- and intraspecies tropism changes. The primary determinant of CoV tropism is the viral spike (S) entry protein. Trimers of the S glycoproteins on the virion surface accommodate binding to a cell surface receptor and fusion of the viral and cellular membrane. Recently, high-resolution structures of two CoV S proteins have been elucidated by single-particle cryo-electron microscopy. Using this new structural insight, we review the changes in the S protein that relate to changes in virus tropism. Different concepts underlie these tropism changes at the cellular, tissue, and host species level, including the promiscuity or adaptability of S proteins to orthologous receptors, alterations in the proteolytic cleavage activation as well as changes in the S protein metastability. A thorough understanding of the key role of the S protein in CoV entry is critical to further our understanding of virus cross-species transmission and pathogenesis and for development of intervention strategies.
Keywords: Coronavirus spike; Cross-species transmission; Cryo-EM structure; Membrane fusion; Receptor interaction; Tropism.
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