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A potential interaction between the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and nicotinic acetylcholine receptors

  • Oliveira, A. Sofia F.1, 2
  • Ibarra, Amaurys Avila3
  • Bermudez, Isabel4
  • Casalino, Lorenzo5
  • Gaieb, Zied5
  • Shoemark, Deborah K.6, 2
  • Gallagher, Timothy1
  • Sessions, Richard B.6
  • Amaro, Rommie E.5
  • Mulholland, Adrian J.1
  • 1 Centre for Computational Chemistry, School of Chemistry, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom
  • 2 Bristol Synthetic Biology Centre, BrisSynBio, Bristol, United Kingdom
  • 3 Research Software Engineering, Advanced Computing Research Centre, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom
  • 4 Department of Biological and Medical Sciences, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, United Kingdom
  • 5 Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California
  • 6 School of Biochemistry, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom
Published Article
Biophysical Journal
Publication Date
Feb 18, 2021
DOI: 10.1016/j.bpj.2021.01.037
PMID: 33609494
PMCID: PMC7889469
PubMed Central


Changeux et al. (Changeux et al. C. R. Biol . 343:33–39.) recently suggested that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein may interact with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) and that such interactions may be involved in pathology and infectivity. This hypothesis is based on the fact that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein contains a sequence motif similar to known nAChR antagonists. Here, we use molecular simulations of validated atomically detailed structures of nAChRs and of the spike to investigate the possible binding of the Y674-R685 region of the spike to nAChRs. We examine the binding of the Y674-R685 loop to three nAChRs, namely the human α 4 β 2 and α 7 subtypes and the muscle-like αβγδ receptor from Tetronarce californica . Our results predict that Y674-R685 has affinity for nAChRs. The region of the spike responsible for binding contains a PRRA motif, a four-residue insertion not found in other SARS-like coronaviruses. The conformational behavior of the bound Y674-R685 is highly dependent on the receptor subtype; it adopts extended conformations in the α 4 β 2 and α 7 complexes but is more compact when bound to the muscle-like receptor. In the α 4 β 2 and αβγδ complexes, the interaction of Y674-R685 with the receptors forces the loop C region to adopt an open conformation, similar to other known nAChR antagonists. In contrast, in the α 7 complex, Y674-R685 penetrates deeply into the binding pocket in which it forms interactions with the residues lining the aromatic box, namely with TrpB, TyrC1, and TyrC2. Estimates of binding energy suggest that Y674-R685 forms stable complexes with all three nAChR subtypes. Analyses of simulations of the glycosylated spike show that the Y674-R685 region is accessible for binding. We suggest a potential binding orientation of the spike protein with nAChRs, in which they are in a nonparallel arrangement to one another.

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