Static all-atom energetic mappings of the SARS-Cov-2 spike protein and dynamic stability analysis of "Up" versus "Down" protomer states

PLoS One. 2020 Nov 10;15(11):e0241168. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0241168. eCollection 2020.


The SARS-CoV-2 virion responsible for the current world-wide pandemic COVID-19 has a characteristic Spike protein (S) on its surface that embellishes both a prefusion state and fusion state. The prefusion Spike protein (S) is a large trimeric protein where each protomer may be in a so-called Up state or Down state, depending on the configuration of its receptor binding domain (RBD) within its distal, prefusion S1 domain. The Up state is believed to allow binding of the virion to ACE-2 receptors on human epithelial cells, whereas the Down state is believed to be relatively inactive or reduced in its binding behavior. We have performed detailed all-atom, dominant energy landscape mappings for noncovalent interactions (charge, partial charge, and van der Waals) of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein in its static prefusion state based on two recent and independent experimental structure publications. We included both interchain interactions and intrachain (domain) interactions in our mappings in order to determine any telling differences (different so-called "glue" points) between residues in the Up and Down state protomers. The S2 proximal, fusion domain demonstrated no appreciable energetic differences between Up and Down protomers, including interchain as well as each protomer's intrachain, S1-S2 interactions. However, the S1 domain interactions across neighboring protomers, which include the RBD-NTD cross chain interactions, showed significant energetic differences between Up-Down and Down-Down neighboring protomers. This included, for example, a key RBD residue ARG357 in the Up-Down interaction and a three residue sequence ALA520-PRO521-ALA522, associated with a turn structure in the RBD of the Up state protomer, acting as a stabilizing interaction with the NTD of its neighbor protomer. Additionally, our intra chain dominant energy mappings within each protomer, identified a significant "glue" point or possible "latch" for the Down state protomer between the S1 subdomain, SD1, and the RBD domain of the same protomer that was completely missing in the Up state protomer analysis. Ironically, this dominant energetic interaction in the Down state protomer involved the backbone atoms of the same three residue sequence ALA520-PRO521-ALA522 of the RBD with the amino acid R-group of GLN564 in the SD1 domain. Thus, this same three residue sequence acts as a stabilizer of the RBD in the Up conformation through its interactions with its neighboring NTD chain and a kind of latch in the Down state conformation through its interactions with its own SD1 domain. The dominant interaction energy residues identified here are also conserved across reported variations of SARS-CoV-2, as well as the closely related virions SARS-Cov and the bat corona virus RatG13. We conducted preliminary molecular dynamics simulations across 0.1 μ seconds to see if this latch provided structural stability and indeed found that a single point mutation (Q564G) resulted in the latch releasing transforming the protomer from the Down to the Up state conformation. Full trimeric Spike protein studies of the same mutation across all protomers, however, did not exhibit latch release demonstrating the critical importance of interchain interactions across the S1 domain, including RBD-NTD neighboring chain interactions. Therapies aimed at disrupting these noncovalent interactions could be a viable route for the physico-chemical mitigation of this deadly virion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2
  • Betacoronavirus / isolation & purification
  • Betacoronavirus / metabolism*
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / pathology
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology
  • Humans
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • Pandemics
  • Peptidyl-Dipeptidase A / chemistry
  • Peptidyl-Dipeptidase A / metabolism
  • Pneumonia, Viral / pathology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology
  • Point Mutation
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Domains
  • Protein Stability
  • Protein Subunits / chemistry
  • Protein Subunits / genetics
  • Protein Subunits / metabolism
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / chemistry
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / genetics
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / metabolism*
  • Thermodynamics


  • Protein Subunits
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • spike protein, SARS-CoV-2
  • Peptidyl-Dipeptidase A
  • ACE2 protein, human
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2