Scientists at Colorado State University hope the discovery will help in the development of treatments for Covid-19.
Two researchers at Colorado State University, in the United States, identified a protein encoded by Sars-CoV-2 that may be associated with the rapid spread of the new coronavirus through cells in the human body. The study was published in June in The FASEB Journal.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the two researchers studied prions, a type of abnormally shaped protein that can affect other proteins.
What makes these particles so interesting is their tendency toward liquid-liquid phase separation, similar to how oil separates from water.
Some of these proteins even condense in a certain part of the cells as if they were oil droplets in the water.
After the pandemic started, the researchers decided to investigate Sars-CoV-2 to help in the search for treatments against Covid-19 – and it worked.
They found that one of the proteins in the new coronavirus, the nucleocapsid (N), has low complexity and can use liquid-liquid phase separation to facilitate the transmission of viral RNA between host cells.
In addition, the N protein may be associated with a reduction in the antiviral response of infected cells.
That’s because, according to scientists, cells usually form something called stress granules, a type of biomolecular condensate, to respond to a change within their structure, such as the presence of a pathogen.
“The cell can react to a stress event by making changes in the cellular environment, including making these modifications to some proteins,” explained Sean Cascarina, co-author of the study and a biochemistry and molecular biology researcher. “But viruses obviously want to avoid a cell’s defenses. They want to be infectious, so sometimes they are able to regulate these stress granules.”
The researchers believe their research may help in the development of treatments against Covid-19.
“Medically, if you could counteract the virus’ ability to interfere with a cell’s immune response, then you could help the cells to fight off the virus,” said Eric Ross, the other co-author and also a biochemistry and molecular biology researcher. “I think this falls into the category of very basic science: if we understand the viral process, then conceivably we can try to design a drug that reverses that process.”