Natural isolate and recombinant SARS-CoV-2 rapidly evolve in vitro to higher infectivity through more efficient binding to heparan sulfate and reduced S1/S2 cleavage.

Academic Article


  • One of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virulence factors is the ability to interact with high affinity to the ACE2 receptor, which mediates viral entry into cells. The results of our study demonstrate that within a few passages in cell culture, both the natural isolate of SARS-CoV-2 and the recombinant, cDNA-derived variant acquire an additional ability to bind to heparan sulfate (HS). This promotes a primary attachment of viral particles to cells before their further interactions with the ACE2. Interaction with HS is acquired through multiple mechanisms. These include i) accumulation of point mutations in the N-terminal domain (NTD) of the S protein, which increase the positive charge of the surface of this domain, ii) insertions into NTD of heterologous peptides, containing positively charged amino acids, and iii) mutation of the first amino acid downstream of the furin cleavage site. This last mutation affects S protein processing, transforms the unprocessed furin cleavage site into the heparin-binding peptide and makes viruses less capable of syncytia formation. These viral adaptations result in higher affinity of viral particles to heparin sepharose, dramatic increase in plaque sizes, more efficient viral spread, higher infectious titers and two orders of magnitude lower GE:PFU ratios. The detected adaptations also suggest an active role of NTD in virus attachment and entry. As in the case of other RNA+ viruses, evolution to HS binding may result in virus attenuation in vivo . IMPORTANCE: The spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 is a major determinant of viral pathogenesis. It mediates binding to ACE2 receptor and later, fusion of viral envelope and cellular membranes. The results of our study demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 rapidly evolves during propagation in cultured cells. Its spike protein acquires mutations in the N-terminal domain (NTD) and in P1‘ position of the furin cleavage site (FCS). The amino acid substitutions or insertions of short peptides in NTD are closely located on the protein surface and increase its positive charge. They strongly increase affinity of the virus to heparan sulfate, make it dramatically more infectious for the cultured cells and decrease GE:PFU ratio by orders of magnitude. The S686G mutation also transforms the FCS into the heparin-binding peptide. Thus, the evolved SARS-CoV-2 variants efficiently use glycosaminoglycans on the cell surface for primary attachment before the high affinity interaction of the spikes with the ACE2 receptor.
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    Author List

  • Shiliaev N; Lukash T; Palchevska O; Crossman DK; Green TJ; Crowley MR; Frolova EI; Frolov I