In an attempt to understand what distinguishes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus (SCoV) from other members of the coronaviridae, we searched for elements that are unique to its proteins and not present in any other family member. We identified an insertion of two glycine residues, forming the GxxxG motif, in the SCoV spike protein transmembrane domain (TMD), which is not found in any other coronavirus. This surprising finding raises an "oligomerization riddle": the GxxxG motif is a known dimerization signal, while the SCoV spike protein is known to be trimeric. Using an in vivo assay, we found that the SCoV spike protein TMD is oligomeric and that this oligomerization is driven by the GxxxG motif. We also found that the GxxxG motif contributes toward the trimerization of the entire spike protein; in that, mutations in the GxxxG motif decrease trimerization of the full-length protein expressed in mammalian cells. Using molecular modeling, we show that the SCoV spike protein TMD adopts a distinct and unique structure as opposed to all other coronaviruses. In this unique structure, the glycine residues of the GxxxG motif are facing each other, enhancing helix-helix interactions by allowing for the close positioning of the helices. This unique orientation of the glycine residues also stabilizes the trimeric bundle during multi-nanosecond molecular dynamics simulation in a hydrated lipid bilayer. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that the GxxxG motif can potentiate other oligomeric forms beside a dimer. Finally, according to recent studies, the stabilization of the trimeric bundle is linked to a higher fusion activity of the spike protein, and the possible influence of the GxxxG motif on this feature is discussed.
ASJC Scopus subject areas