Molecular mimicry is an evolutionary strategy adopted by viruses to exploit the host cellular machinery.
This paper reports that SARS-CoV-2 has evolved a unique S1/S2 cleavage site, absent in any previous coronavirus sequenced, resulting in striking mimicry of an identical FURIN-cleavable peptide on the human epithelial sodium channel α-subunit (ENaC-α).
Genetic alteration of ENaC-α causes aldosterone dysregulation in patients, highlighting that the FURIN site is critical for activation of ENaC. Single cell RNA-seq from studies shows significant overlap between expression of ENaC-α and the viral receptor ACE2 in cell types linked to the cardiovascular-renal-pulmonary pathophysiology of COVID-19. Triangulating this cellular characterization with cleavage signatures of 178 proteases highlights proteolytic degeneracy wired into the SARS-CoV-2 lifecycle.
Evolution of SARS-CoV-2 into a global pandemic may be driven in part by its targeted mimicry of ENaC-α, a protein critical for the homeostasis of airway surface liquid, whose misregulation is associated with respiratory conditions.