Crystallographers unite to tackle coronavirus

The International Union of Crystallography (IUCr), an ISC Member, is collecting stories from across the world of how crystallographers are contributing to efforts to find a vaccine for COVID-19.

The IUCr website highlights a number of key discoveries, and provides links to freely available resources for coronavirus and COVID-19 research. We highlight some of the advances profiled by IUCr below:

At the University of Texas (UT) in the United States, Jason McLellan has used state-of-the-art technology known as cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) in order to determine the structure of the coronavirus spike protein. Cryo-EM enables researchers to make atomic-scale 3D models of cellular structures, molecules and viruses. After Chinese scientists released the sequence of the new coronavirus, Dr McLellan and his team engineered a variant of the spike protein to increase its stability and expression for study, and ordered the nucleic acid to be synthesized for the modified spike protein. Within 25 days of receiving the engineered nucleic acid, they cloned the gene, expressed the protein, isolated it, used the university’s cryo-EM facility to determine the structure, and submitted their paper to Science, where it has already been published.

Structure of 2019-nCoV spike protein in the prefusion conformation

This is a 3D atomic scale map, or molecular structure, of the 2019-nCoV spikeprotein. The protein takes on two different shapes, called conformations—one before it infects a host cell, and another during infection. This structure represents the protein before it infects a cell, called the prefusion conformation (image courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin).

Immediate Past President of the IUCr, Marvin Hackert, used the coordinates from Dr McLellan to produce a 3D printed model, which was shown by Dr McLellan on Fox National News in the US, and on WXYZ-TV Detroit.

Meanwhile, the recent Joint Polish–German Crystallographic Meeting in Wroclaw, Poland, started with a Plenary Lecture by Rolf Hilgenfeld (University of Lübeck, Germany) entitled “From SARS to MERS and the 2020 Wuhan pneumonia virus – How X-ray crystallography can help fight emerging viruses.” Results were presented that had only been obtained that day. You can find out more about these stories in the forthcoming issue of the IUCr Newsletter, and a number of additional resources are available on the IUCr website, which is being regularly updated.

A virtual issue containing all of the articles and abstracts on coronaviruses published in IUCr journals is available in a free-to-read collection here

Photo: Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (NIAID via Flickr)