CoronaVirus News

Atomistic Prediction of Structures, Conformational Ensembles and Binding Energetics for the SARS-CoV-2 Spike JN.1, KP.2 and KP.3 Variants Using AlphaFold2 and Molecular Dynamics Simulations: Mutational Profiling and Binding Free Energy Analysis Reveal Epistatic Hotspots of the ACE2 Affinity and Immune Escape

The most recent wave of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variants descending from BA.2 and BA.2.86 exhibited improved viral growth and fitness due to convergent evolution of functional hotspots. These hotspots operate in tandem to optimize both receptor binding for effective infection and immune evasion efficiency, thereby maintaining overall viral fitness. The lack of molecular details on structure, dynamics and binding energetics of the latest FLiRT and FLuQE variants with the ACE2 receptor and antibodies provides a considerable challenge that is explored in this study. We combined AlphaFold2-based atomistic predictions of structures and conformational ensembles of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike complexes with the host receptor ACE2 for the most dominant Omicron variants JN.1, KP.1, KP.2 and KP.3 to examine the mechanisms underlying the role of convergent evolution hotspots in balancing ACE2 binding and antibody evasion. Using the ensemble-based mutational scanning of the spike protein residues and computations of binding affinities, we identified binding energy hotspots and characterized molecular basis underlying epistatic couplings between convergent mutational hotspots. The results suggested that the existence of epistatic interactions between convergent mutational sites at L455, F456, Q493 positions that enable to protect and restore ACE2 binding affinity while conferring beneficial immune escape. To examine immune escape mechanisms, we performed structure-based mutational profiling of the spike protein binding with several classes of antibodies that displayed impaired neutralization against BA.2.86, JN.1, KP.2 and KP.3. The results confirmed the experimental data that JN.1, KP.2 and KP.3 harboring the L455S and F456L mutations can significantly impair the neutralizing activity of class-1 monoclonal antibodies, while the epistatic effects mediated by F456L can facilitate the subsequent convergence of Q493E changes to rescue ACE2 binding. Structural and energetic analysis provided a rationale to the experimental results showing that BD55-5840 and BD55-5514 antibodies that bind to different binding epitopes can retain neutralizing efficacy against all examined variants BA.2.86, JN.1, KP.2 and KP.3. The results support the notion that evolution of Omicron variants may favor emergence of lineages with beneficial combinations of mutations involving mediators of epistatic couplings that control balance of high ACE2 affinity and immune evasion.