The role of high cholesterol in SARS-CoV-2 infectivity

J Biol Chem. 2023 Jun;299(6):104763. doi: 10.1016/j.jbc.2023.104763. Epub 2023 Apr 28.


Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory infection caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. The virus binds to angiotensinogen converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which mediates viral entry into mammalian cells. COVID-19 is notably severe in the elderly and in those with underlying chronic conditions. The cause of selective severity is not well understood. Here we show cholesterol and the signaling lipid phosphatidyl-inositol 4,5 bisphosphate (PIP2) regulate viral infectivity through the localization of ACE2's into nanoscopic (<200 nm) lipid clusters. Uptake of cholesterol into cell membranes (a condition common to chronic disease) causes ACE2 to move from PIP2 lipids to endocytic ganglioside (GM1) lipids, where the virus is optimally located for viral entry. In mice, age and high-fat diet increase lung tissue cholesterol by up to 40%. And in smokers with chronic disease, cholesterol is elevated 2-fold, a magnitude of change that dramatically increases infectivity of virus in cell culture. We conclude increasing the ACE2 location near endocytic lipids increases viral infectivity and may help explain the selective severity of COVID-19 in aged and diseased populations.

Keywords: COVID-19; GM1; PIP2; STORM; aging; apoE; cholesterol; diabetes; furin; imaging; lipid membrane; lipid raft; obesity; palmitoylation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2
  • Animals
  • COVID-19*
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Hypercholesterolemia*
  • Mammals / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Peptidyl-Dipeptidase A / metabolism
  • SARS-CoV-2 / metabolism
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus / metabolism


  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2
  • Peptidyl-Dipeptidase A
  • Cholesterol
  • Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus
  • spike protein, SARS-CoV-2