Comprehensive fitness landscape of SARS-CoV-2 Mpro reveals insights into viral resistance mechanisms

Elife. 2022 Jun 20;11:e77433. doi: 10.7554/eLife.77433.


With the continual evolution of new strains of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) that are more virulent, transmissible, and able to evade current vaccines, there is an urgent need for effective anti-viral drugs. The SARS-CoV-2 main protease (Mpro) is a leading target for drug design due to its conserved and indispensable role in the viral life cycle. Drugs targeting Mpro appear promising but will elicit selection pressure for resistance. To understand resistance potential in Mpro, we performed a comprehensive mutational scan of the protease that analyzed the function of all possible single amino acid changes. We developed three separate high throughput assays of Mpro function in yeast, based on either the ability of Mpro variants to cleave at a defined cut-site or on the toxicity of their expression to yeast. We used deep sequencing to quantify the functional effects of each variant in each screen. The protein fitness landscapes from all three screens were strongly correlated, indicating that they captured the biophysical properties critical to Mpro function. The fitness landscapes revealed a non-active site location on the surface that is extremely sensitive to mutation, making it a favorable location to target with inhibitors. In addition, we found a network of critical amino acids that physically bridge the two active sites of the Mpro dimer. The clinical variants of Mpro were predominantly functional in our screens, indicating that Mpro is under strong selection pressure in the human population. Our results provide predictions of mutations that will be readily accessible to Mpro evolution and that are likely to contribute to drug resistance. This complete mutational guide of Mpro can be used in the design of inhibitors with reduced potential of evolving viral resistance.

Keywords: Mpro; S. cerevisiae; SARS-CoV-2; deep mutational scanning; evolutionary biology; infectious disease; main protease; microbiology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antiviral Agents / chemistry
  • Antiviral Agents / pharmacology
  • COVID-19 Drug Treatment*
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Protease Inhibitors
  • SARS-CoV-2* / genetics
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / metabolism
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins / metabolism


  • Antiviral Agents
  • Protease Inhibitors
  • Viral Nonstructural Proteins
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases

Grant support

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.