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A significant body of experimental structures of SARS-CoV-2 spike trimers for the BA.1 and BA.2 variants revealed a considerable plasticity of the spike protein and the emergence of druggable binding pockets. Understanding the interplay of conformational dynamics changes induced by the Omicron variants and the identification of cryptic dynamic binding pockets in the S protein is of paramount importance as exploring broad-spectrum antiviral agents to combat the emerging variants is imperative. In the current study, we explore conformational landscapes and characterize the universe of binding pockets in multiple open and closed functional spike states of the BA.1 and BA.2 Omicron variants. By using a combination of atomistic simulations, a dynamics network analysis, and an allostery-guided network screening of binding pockets in the conformational ensembles of the BA.1 and BA.2 spike conformations, we identified all experimentally known allosteric sites and discovered significant variant-specific differences in the distribution of binding sites in the BA.1 and BA.2 trimers. This study provided a structural characterization of the predicted cryptic pockets and captured the experimentally known allosteric sites, revealing the critical role of conformational plasticity in modulating the distribution and cross-talk between functional binding sites. We found that mutational and dynamic changes in the BA.1 variant can induce the remodeling and stabilization of a known druggable pocket in the N-terminal domain, while this pocket is drastically altered and may no longer be available for ligand binding in the BA.2 variant. Our results predicted the experimentally known allosteric site in the receptor-binding domain that remains stable and ranks as the most favorable site in the conformational ensembles of the BA.2 variant but could become fragmented and less probable in BA.1 conformations. We also uncovered several cryptic pockets formed at the inter-domain and inter-protomer interface, including functional regions of the S2 subunit and stem helix region, which are consistent with the known role of pocket residues in modulating conformational transitions and antibody recognition. The results of this study are particularly significant for understanding the dynamic and network features of the universe of available binding pockets in spike proteins, as well as the effects of the Omicron-variant-specific modulation of preferential druggable pockets. The exploration of predicted druggable sites can present a new and previously underappreciated opportunity for therapeutic interventions for Omicron variants through the conformation-selective and variant-specific targeting of functional sites involved in allosteric changes.


This article was originally published in Viruses, volume 15, in 2023.

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

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.



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