Energy landscape of the SARS-CoV-2 reveals extensive conformational heterogeneity

Ghoncheh Mashayekhi, John Vant, Abhigna Polavarapu, Abbas Ourmazd, Abhishek Singharoy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) has produced a number of structural models of the SARS-CoV-2 spike, already prompting biomedical outcomes. However, these reported models and their associated electrostatic potential maps represent an unknown admixture of conformations stemming from the underlying energy landscape of the spike protein. As with any protein, some of the spike's conformational motions are expected to be biophysically relevant, but cannot be interpreted only by static models. Using experimental cryo-EM images, we present the energy landscape of the glycosylated spike protein, and identify the diversity of low-energy conformations in the vicinity of its open (so called 1RBD-up) state. The resulting atomic refinement reveal global and local molecular rearrangements that cannot be inferred from an average 1RBD-up cryo-EM model. Here we report varied degrees of “openness” in global conformations of the 1RBD-up state, not revealed in the single-model interpretations of the density maps, together with conformations that overlap with the reported models. We discover how the glycan shield contributes to the stability of these low-energy conformations. Five out of six binding sites we analyzed, including those for engaging ACE2, therapeutic mini-proteins, linoleic acid, two different kinds of antibodies, switch conformations between their known apo- and holo-conformations, even when the global spike conformation is 1RBD-up. This apo-to-holo switching is reminiscent of a conformational preequilibrium. We found only one binding site, namely that of AB-C135 remains in apo state within all the sampled free energy-minimizing models, suggesting an induced fit mechanism for the docking of this antibody to the spike.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)68-77
Number of pages10
JournalCurrent Research in Structural Biology
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • Cryo-EM
  • Free energy landscape
  • Manifold machine learning
  • Molecular dynamics
  • Spike protein

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Structural Biology
  • Molecular Biology


Dive into the research topics of 'Energy landscape of the SARS-CoV-2 reveals extensive conformational heterogeneity'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this