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Structural and biochemical studies have recently revealed a range of rationally engineered nanobodies with efficient neutralizing capacity against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and resilience against mutational escape. In this study, we performed a comprehensive computational analysis of the SARS-CoV-2 spike trimer complexes with single nanobodies Nb6, VHH E, and complex with VHH E/VHH V nanobody combination. We combined coarse-grained and all-atom molecular simulations and collective dynamics analysis with binding free energy scanning, perturbation-response scanning, and network centrality analysis to examine mechanisms of nanobody-induced allosteric modulation and cooperativity in the SARS-CoV-2 spike trimer complexes with these nanobodies. By quantifying energetic and allosteric determinants of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein binding with nanobodies, we also examined nanobody-induced modulation of escaping mutations and the effect of the Omicron variant on nanobody binding. The mutational scanning analysis supported the notion that E484A mutation can have a significant detrimental effect on nanobody binding and result in Omicron-induced escape from nanobody neutralization. Our findings showed that SARS-CoV-2 spike protein might exploit the plasticity of specific allosteric hotspots to generate escape mutants that alter response to binding without compromising activity. The network analysis supported these findings showing that VHH E/VHH V nanobody binding can induce long-range couplings between the cryptic binding epitope and ACE2-binding site through a broader ensemble of communication paths that is less dependent on specific mediating centers and therefore may be less sensitive to mutational perturbations of functional residues. The results suggest that binding affinity and long-range communications of the SARS-CoV-2 complexes with nanobodies can be determined by structurally stable regulatory centers and conformationally adaptable hotspots that are allosterically coupled and collectively control resilience to mutational escape.


This article was originally published in International Journal of Molecular Sciences, volume 23, in 2022.

This scholarship is part of the Chapman University COVID-19 Archives.

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