Morphogenesis and cytopathic effect of SARS-CoV-2 infection in human airway epithelial cells

Nat Commun. 2020 Aug 6;11(1):3910. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-17796-z.


SARS-CoV-2, a β-coronavirus, has rapidly spread across the world, highlighting its high transmissibility, but the underlying morphogenesis and pathogenesis remain poorly understood. Here, we characterize the replication dynamics, cell tropism and morphogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 in organotypic human airway epithelial (HAE) cultures. SARS-CoV-2 replicates efficiently and infects both ciliated and secretory cells in HAE cultures. In comparison, HCoV-NL63 replicates to lower titers and is only detected in ciliated cells. SARS-CoV-2 shows a similar morphogenetic process as other coronaviruses but causes plaque-like cytopathic effects in HAE cultures. Cell fusion, apoptosis, destruction of epithelium integrity, cilium shrinking and beaded changes are observed in the plaque regions. Taken together, our results provide important insights into SARS-CoV-2 cell tropism, replication and morphogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus / pathogenicity
  • Betacoronavirus / physiology*
  • COVID-19
  • Cell Line
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology*
  • Cytopathogenic Effect, Viral
  • Epithelial Cells / pathology
  • Epithelial Cells / virology*
  • Humans
  • Morphogenesis / physiology*
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology*
  • Respiratory System / pathology
  • Respiratory System / virology*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Tropism
  • Virus Replication