Molecular insight into the specific interactions of the SARS-Coronavirus-2 nucleocapsid with RNA and host protein

Protein Sci. 2023 Apr;32(4):e4603. doi: 10.1002/pro.4603.


The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) nucleocapsid protein is the most abundantly expressed viral protein during infection where it targets both RNA and host proteins. However, identifying how a single viral protein interacts with so many different targets remains a challenge, providing the impetus here for identifying the interaction sites through multiple methods. Through a combination of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), electron microscopy, and biochemical methods, we have characterized nucleocapsid interactions with RNA and with three host proteins, which include human cyclophilin-A, Pin1, and 14-3-3τ. Regarding RNA interactions, the nucleocapsid protein N-terminal folded domain preferentially interacts with smaller RNA fragments relative to the C-terminal region, suggesting an initial RNA engagement is largely dictated by this N-terminal region followed by weaker interactions to the C-terminal region. The nucleocapsid protein forms 10 nm ribonuclear complexes with larger RNA fragments that include 200 and 354 nucleic acids, revealing its potential diversity in sequestering different viral genomic regions during viral packaging. Regarding host protein interactions, while the nucleocapsid targets all three host proteins through its serine-arginine-rich region, unstructured termini of the nucleocapsid protein also engage host cyclophilin-A and host 14-3-3τ. Considering these host proteins play roles in innate immunity, the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein may block the host response by competing interactions. Finally, phosphorylation of the nucleocapsid protein quenches an inherent dynamic exchange process within its serine-arginine-rich region. Our studies identify many of the diverse interactions that may be important for SARS-CoV-2 pathology during infection.

Keywords: COVID-19; RNA; SARS; host protein; nucleocapsid.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Arginine
  • COVID-19*
  • Cyclophilins / analysis
  • Humans
  • NIMA-Interacting Peptidylprolyl Isomerase / analysis
  • Nucleocapsid / chemistry
  • Nucleocapsid / metabolism
  • Nucleocapsid Proteins / chemistry
  • Nucleocapsid Proteins / genetics
  • Nucleocapsid Proteins / metabolism
  • RNA*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / metabolism
  • Serine


  • RNA
  • Cyclophilins
  • Nucleocapsid Proteins
  • Arginine
  • Serine
  • PIN1 protein, human
  • NIMA-Interacting Peptidylprolyl Isomerase