COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2. Novel coronavirus. This virus by any other name would still…probably occupy as much of the news cycle and our collective brain space as it has the past 483 days and counting. While the U.S. is seemingly closer to getting the pandemic under control with the roll-out of the vaccine program and with daily new cases steadily decreasing, the fight to effectively treat the infection is nowhere near won.
But before there were COVID-19 vaccines, there was Assistant Professor of Chemistry Tim Reichart’s Advanced Laboratory—CHEM 351. While the rest of the world was focused on the spike protein, which is the target of the mRNA vaccines currently on the market, Dr. Reichart was hunting down a more elusive, harder-to-access part of the virus: the transmembrane domain.
You probably want to know what a transmembrane domain is, right? Better let the experts handle that one: “The SARS-CoV-2 virus has a lipid membrane bilayer and several integral proteins that are necessary for infection including the spike protein, membrane protein, and envelope protein, which my students worked with. Each of these proteins has a transmembrane domain, which is the part of the protein that sits in the membrane bilayer and makes sure it doesn’t leave the virus. It’s like a foundation, setting the protein in place,” explains Reichart. And these proteins are critical to making SARS-CoV-2 virus particles infectious.
In the fall of 2020, five students in Dr. Reichart’s Advanced Lab began synthesizing the various proteins found in the SARS-CoV-2 virus in an effort to determine each protein’s oligomerization state, which is potentially a target for drug development. “For example, if a protein has to be a trimer to function—like the spike protein—disruption of that trimer, either at the transmembrane domain or somewhere else, would prevent that protein from being functional and would therefore prevent the virus from being infectious,” Reichart explains.
If you’re confused, don’t worry. This isn’t your typical undergraduate chemistry subject matter. “I would give this project to a graduate-level student at an Ivy League institution,” Dr. Reichart admits. “Transmembrane peptides are really difficult to work with, which explains why the first semester was very frustrating for the students, but it’s a real-world problem.” Despite the advanced nature of the project, several students successfully synthesized their proteins in the fall semester, and more did so in the second part of the course, Advanced Laboratory—CHEM 352—this spring.