Effects of common mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 Spike RBD and its ligand, the human ACE2 receptor on binding affinity and kinetics

Elife. 2021 Aug 26:10:e70658. doi: 10.7554/eLife.70658.


The interaction between the SARS-CoV-2 virus Spike protein receptor binding domain (RBD) and the ACE2 cell surface protein is required for viral infection of cells. Mutations in the RBD are present in SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern that have emerged independently worldwide. For example, the B.1.1.7 lineage has a mutation (N501Y) in its Spike RBD that enhances binding to ACE2. There are also ACE2 alleles in humans with mutations in the RBD binding site. Here we perform a detailed affinity and kinetics analysis of the effect of five common RBD mutations (K417N, K417T, N501Y, E484K, and S477N) and two common ACE2 mutations (S19P and K26R) on the RBD/ACE2 interaction. We analysed the effects of individual RBD mutations and combinations found in new SARS-CoV-2 Alpha (B.1.1.7), Beta (B.1.351), and Gamma (P1) variants. Most of these mutations increased the affinity of the RBD/ACE2 interaction. The exceptions were mutations K417N/T, which decreased the affinity. Taken together with other studies, our results suggest that the N501Y and S477N mutations enhance transmission primarily by enhancing binding, the K417N/T mutations facilitate immune escape, and the E484K mutation enhances binding and immune escape.

Keywords: ACE2; COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; affinity; biochemistry; chemical biology; coronavirus; human; infectious disease; microbiology; viral receptor.

Plain language summary

As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, new variants of the virus SARS-CoV-2 have emerged that are more infectious than the original form. The variants known as Alpha, Beta and Gamma have mutations in a protein on the virus’s surface that is vital for attaching to cells and infecting them. This protein, called Spike, carries out its role by binding to ACE2, a protein on the surface of human cells. Mutations on Spike are found on the region where it binds to ACE2. The interaction between these two proteins appears to be important to the behaviour of SARS-CoV-2, but the impact of individual mutations in Spike is unknown. In addition, some people have different variants of ACE2 with mutations in the region that interacts with Spike, but it is not known whether this affects these people’s risk of contracting COVID-19. To answer these questions, Barton et al. measured the precise effect of mutations in Spike and ACE2 on the strength of the interaction between the two proteins. The experiments showed that three of the five common Spike mutations in the Alpha, Beta and Gamma SARS-CoV-2 variants strengthened binding to ACE2. The two mutations that weakened binding were only found together with other mutations that strengthened binding. This meant that the Spike proteins in all three of these SARS-CoV-2 variants bind to ACE2 more strongly than the original form. The experiments also showed that two common variants of ACE2 also increased the strength of binding to Spike. Interestingly, one of these ACE2 variants reversed the effect of a specific SARS-CoV-2 mutation, suggesting that carriers would be resistant to SARS-CoV-2 variants with this mutation. Identifying the precise effects of Spike mutations on ACE2 binding helps understand why new variants of SARS-CoV-2 spread more rapidly. This could help to identify concerning new variants before they spread widely and inform the response by health authorities. The finding that two common ACE2 variants bind more strongly to Spike suggests that people with these mutations could be more susceptible to SARS-CoV-2.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 / chemistry
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2 / metabolism*
  • Binding Sites
  • COVID-19 / virology
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Ligands
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • Mutation*
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Domains
  • Protein Interaction Domains and Motifs
  • SARS-CoV-2 / classification
  • SARS-CoV-2 / genetics*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / metabolism
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / chemistry
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / genetics*
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / metabolism*


  • Ligands
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • spike protein, SARS-CoV-2
  • ACE2 protein, human
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2