Coronaviruses have caused multiple epidemics in the past two decades, in addition to the current COVID-19 pandemic MESHD
that is severely damaging global health and the economy. Coronaviruses employ between twenty and thirty proteins to carry out their viral replication cycle including infection, immune evasion, and replication. Among these, nonstructural protein 16 PROTEIN
(Nsp16), a 2-O-methyltransferase, plays an essential role in immune evasion. Nsp16 achieves this by mimicking its human homolog, CMTr1 HGNC
, which methylates mRNA to enhance translation efficiency and distinguish self from other. Unlike human CMTr1 HGNC
, Nsp16 requires a binding partner, Nsp10, to activate its enzymatic activity. The requirement of this binding partner presents two questions that we investigate in this manuscript. First, how does Nsp10 activate Nsp16? While experimentally-derived structures of the active Nsp16/Nsp10 complex exist, structures of inactive, monomeric Nsp16 have yet to be solved. Therefore, it is unclear how Nsp10 activates Nsp16. Using over one millisecond of molecular dynamics simulations of both Nsp16 and its complex with Nsp10, we investigate how the presence of Nsp10 shifts Nsp16s conformational ensemble in order to activate it. Second, guided by this activation mechanism and Markov state models (MSMs), we investigate if Nsp16 adopts inactive structures with cryptic pockets that, if targeted with a small molecule, could inhibit Nsp16 by stabilizing its inactive state. After identifying such a pocket in SARS-CoV-2 Nsp16, we show that this cryptic pocket also opens in SARS-CoV-1 and MERS, but not in human CMTr1 HGNC
. Therefore, it may be possible to develop pan-coronavirus antivirals that target this cryptic pocket.
Statement of SignificanceCoronaviruses are a major threat to human health. These viruses employ molecular machines, called proteins, to infect host MESHD
cells and replicate. Characterizing the structure and dynamics of these proteins could provide a basis for designing small molecule antivirals. In this work, we use computer simulations to understand the moving parts of an essential SARS-CoV-2 protein, understand how a binding partner turns it on and off, and identify a novel pocket that antivirals could target to shut this protein off. The pocket is also present in other coronaviruses but not in the related human protein, so it could be a valuable target for pan-coronavirus antivirals.