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First molecular structure of coronavirus spike protein mapped by cryo-EM – a perfect example of how our work impacts society

[Letter to the Editor]

I suspect that we are all hearing a lot about the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) on the news these days. I am not sure if the work of University of Texas (UT) at Austin's Jason McLellan structure determination of the spike protein of the coronavirus by cryo-EM has made it into your local and national news, but I wanted to share this story with you as an example of how our work impacts society and how the world of structure determination has changed so dramatically over the past few years – from years to days to get a large, complicated protein structure.

Jason uses both X-ray crystallography and cryo-EM to study viruses that affect the respiratory system, and has been recognized for his work as a past recipient of the ACA Margaret Etter Award for promising young investigators. After the Chinese released the sequence of the new coronavirus, Jason and his team engineered a variant of the spike protein to increase its stability and expression for study. They ordered the nucleic acid to be synthesized for the modified spike protein. Within 25 days of receiving the engineered nucleic acid, they cloned the gene, expressed the protein, isolated it, used our cryo-EM facility to determine the structure AND submitted their paper to Science, which came out mid-February!

Jason has been interviewed on the news a lot since then. Knowing that I have been doing 3D printing of biomolecules, Jason sent me the coordinates of the coronavirus spike protein and asked if I could make a 3D printed model for him before he was going to be interviewed by Bill Hemmer on Fox National News. I did so over the weekend (it took more than 2 days to print the model) and I presented the model to Jason on the following Monday morning. The photo below of Jason holding the 3D printed model was taken from our recording of the TV news interview. I added the sketch of the whole coronavirus particle posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to illustrate the location of the surface spike protein that Jason and his group determined. I am very proud of our whole group of young structural biologists at UT, and delighted to have been able to assist in this small way. I wanted to share this with friends who could appreciate the moment.

[Jason McL Fox News]

Marv Hackert, Immediate Past President of the IUCr
Department of Molecular Biosciences, University of Texas at Austin, TX, USA

27 February 2020

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