Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
About 70,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with COVID-19 each and every day. It’s clear that these new cases are being driven by the more-infectious Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But why does the Delta variant spread more easily than other viral variants from one person to the next?
Now, an NIH-funded team has discovered at least part of Delta’s secret, and it’s not all attributable to those widely studied mutations in the spike protein that links up to human cells through the ACE2 receptor. It turns out that a specific mutation found within the N protein coding region of the Delta genome also enables the virus to pack more of its RNA code into the infected host cell. As a result, there is increased production of fully functional new viral particles, which can go on to infect someone else.
This finding, published in the journal Science , comes from the lab of Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco, and the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Co-leading the team was Melanie Ott, Gladstone Institutes.
The Doudna and Ott teams have developed an exciting new tool to study variants of the coronavirus. It’s a lab construct called a virus-like particle (VLP). These specially made VLPs have all the structural proteins of SARS-CoV-2 (shown above), but they contain no genetic material. Consequently, they are non-infectious replicas of the real virus that can be studied safely in any lab. Scientists don’t have to reserve time in labs equipped with heightened levels of biosafety, as is required when working with whole virus.
The VLPs also allow researchers to explore changes found in the coronavirus’s other essential proteins, not just the spike protein on its surface. In fact, all of the SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), carry at least one mutation within the same stretch of seven amino acids in a viral protein known as the nucleocapsid (N protein). This protein, which hasn’t been widely studied, is required for the virus to make more of itself. It is also involved in the virus’s ability to package and release infectious RNA.
In the Science paper, Doudna and colleagues took a closer look at the N protein. They did so by developing a special system that used VLPs to package and deliver viral RNA messages into human cells.
Here’s how it works: The VLPs include all four of SARS-CoV-2’s structural proteins, including the spike and N proteins. In addition, they contain the RNA sequence that allows the virus to recognize its genetic material within the cell, so that it can be packaged into the next generation of viral particles.
Though the particles look just like SARS-CoV-2 from the outside, they lack the vast majority of the viral genome on the inside. But they do have one other key component: a snippet of RNA that makes cells invaded by VLPs glow. In fact, the more RNA messages a VLP delivers, the brighter the cells will glow. It allowed the researchers to spot successful invasions, while also quantifying the amount of RNA a particular VLP packed into a cell.
The researchers then produced SARS-CoV-2 VLPs including four mutations that are universally found within the N proteins of more transmissible variants of concern. That’s when they discovered those variants produced and delivered 10 times more RNA messages into cells.
The increased RNA also fits with what has been observed in people infected with the Delta variant. They produce about 10 times more virus in their nose and throat compared to people infected with the older variants.
But did those findings match what happens in the real virus? To find out, the researchers and their colleagues tested the N protein mutation found in the Delta variant in a high-level biosafety lab. And, indeed, their studies showed that the mutated virus within infected human lung cells produced about 50 times more infectious virus compared to the original SARS-CoV-2 variant.
The findings suggest that the N protein could be an important new target for effective COVID-19 therapeutics, and that tracking newly emerging mutations in the N protein might also be important for identifying new viral variants of concern. This new system is a powerful tool, and one that can also be used for exploring how newly arising variants in the future might affect the course of this terrible pandemic.
 Rapid assessment of SARS-CoV-2 evolved variants using virus-like particles. Syed AM, Taha TY, Tabata T, Chen IP, Ciling A, Khalid MM, Sreekumar B, Chen PY, Hayashi JM, Soczek KM, Ott M, Doudna JA. Science. 2021 Nov 4:eabl6184.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases