Since joining NIH, I’ve held a number of different leadership positions. But there is one position that thankfully has remained constant for me: lab chief. I run my own research laboratory at NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).
My lab studies a biochemical process called O-glycosylation. It’s fundamental to life and fascinating to study. Our cells are often adorned with a variety of carbohydrate sugars. O-glycosylation refers to the biochemical process through which these sugar molecules, either found at the cell surface or secreted, get added to proteins. The presence or absence of these sugars on certain proteins plays fundamental roles in normal tissue development and first-line human immunity. It also is associated with various diseases, including cancer.
Our lab recently joined a team of NIH scientists led by my NIDCR colleague Kelly Ten Hagen to demonstrate how O-glycosylation can influence SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and its ability to fuse to cells, which is a key step in infecting them. In fact, our data, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that some variants, seem to have mutated to exploit the process to their advantage .
The work builds on the virus’s reliance on the spike proteins that crown its outer surface to attach to human cells. Once there, the spike protein must be activated to fuse and launch an infection. That happens when enzymes produced by our own cells make a series of cuts, or cleavages, to the spike protein.
The first cut comes from an enzyme called furin. We and others had earlier evidence that O-glycosylation can affect the way furin makes those cuts. That got us thinking: Could O-glycosylation influence the interaction between furin and the spike protein? The furin cleavage area of the viral spike was indeed adorned with sugars, and their presence or absence might influence spike activation by furin.
We also noticed the Alpha and Delta variants carry a mutation that removes the amino acid proline in a specific spot. That was intriguing because we knew from earlier work that enzymes called GALNTs, which are responsible for adding bulky sugar molecules to proteins, prefer prolines near O-glycosylation sites.
It also suggested that loss of proline in the new variants could mean decreased O-glycosylation, which might then influence the degree of furin cleavage and SARS-CoV-2’s ability to enter cells. I should note that the recent Omicron variant was not examined in the current study.
After detailed studies in fruit fly and mammalian cells, we demonstrated in the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that O-glycosylation of the spike protein decreases furin cleavage. Further experiments then showed that the GALNT1 enzyme adds sugars to the spike protein and this addition limits the ability of furin to make the needed cuts and activate the spike protein.
Importantly, the spike protein change found in the Alpha and Delta variants lowers GALNT1 activity, making it easier for furin to start its activating cuts. It suggests that glycosylation of the viral spike by GALNT1 may limit infection with the original virus, and that the Alpha and Delta variant mutation at least partially overcomes this effect, to potentially make the virus more infectious.
Building on these studies, our teams looked for evidence of GALNT1 in the respiratory tracts of healthy human volunteers. We found that the enzyme is indeed abundantly expressed in those cells. Interestingly, those same cells also express the ACE2 receptor, which SARS-CoV-2 depends on to infect human cells.
It’s also worth noting here that the Omicron variant carries the very same spike mutation that we studied in Alpha and Delta. Omicron also has another nearby change that might further alter O-glycosylation and cleavage of the spike protein by furin. The Ten Hagen lab is looking into these leads to learn how this region in Omicron affects spike glycosylation and, ultimately, the ability of this devastating virus to infect human cells and spread.
 Furin cleavage of the SARS-CoV-2 spike is modulated by O-glycosylation. Zhang L, Mann M, Syed Z, Reynolds HM, Tian E, Samara NL, Zeldin DC, Tabak LA, Ten Hagen KG. PNAS. 2021 Nov 23;118(47).
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
Kelly Ten Hagen (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)
Lawrence Tabak (NIDCR)
NIH Support: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research