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Scientists discover COVID’s weakness

Scientists have identified what may be considered as COVID’s ultimate weakness: the virus’s reliance on essential human proteins to replicate and, subsequently, its ability to make individuals ill.

The dependence on SUMOylation

In a recently published paper in the journal ‘Viruses,’ the research team led by UC Riverside laid bare an essential mechanism by which the COVID virus reproduces. The virus’s protein known as ‘N,’ which allows COVID to replicate, is heavily dependent on specific human cell processes. These processes, post-translation modifications like SUMOylation, ensure that proteins in our bodies perform their designated functions optimally.

To provide context, our body’s genetic instructions shift from DNA to messenger RNA, which then gets converted into functional proteins. These proteins, post their translation, frequently need additional tweaks by various enzymes to ensure they function as intended.

Here’s where the crux of the discovery, and COVID’s weakness, lies: the COVID virus hijacks the SUMOylation process in humans. This maneuver ensures that the N protein of the virus is directed to the ideal location within the human cell, post which it packages its genome.

Once positioned correctly, the protein can then start creating copies of its genetic material into new virus particles, increasing the infection and disease severity.

Quanqing Zhang, the co-author of this important study and also the manager of UCR’s Institute for Integrative Genome Biology’s proteomics core laboratory, explains the significance, “In the wrong location, the virus cannot infect us.”

A unique visualization technique

To understand this process in-depth, the researchers employed a distinct approach. They engineered experiments which allowed them to visualize the post-translational modifications of COVID proteins clearly.

By employing a fluorescence mechanism, the team could visibly identify interactions between human proteins and the virus, thus mapping the creation of new virions or infectious virus particles.

This method, according to UCR bioengineering professor Jiayu Liao, is superior in sensitivity when compared to other techniques. It offers a more holistic view of the interplay between human and viral proteins.

Moreover, it was found that two prevalent types of the flu virus, Influenza A and B, mirror this dependency on the SUMOylation process for their replication.

New class of antiviral medications

Identifying COVID’s weakness might herald the birth of a new generation of antiviral medicines. The dependency of COVID on the SUMOylation proteins is akin to that seen in flu viruses. By blocking the virus’s access to these human proteins, our immune system could potentially overpower and destroy the virus.

Currently, the most effective treatment for COVID is Paxlovid, which halts the virus’s replication. However, its efficacy is most potent within the first three days of infection. Professor Liao believes that the recent discovery can pave the way for a medication that assists patients at all infection stages.

The parallels drawn between different viruses based on this study could potentially usher in novel antiviral medicines. Liao is optimistic, estimating that with adequate resources and backing, such treatments could be a reality within five years.

In a broader perspective, Liao envisions these findings to be instrumental in combatting other virulent strains, like RSV and Ebola, apart from the flu and COVID. “We are making new discoveries to help make this happen,” concludes Liao, hinting at an exciting phase of antiviral research on the horizon.

More about SUMOylation

SUMOylation, a significant post-translational modification (PTM) mentioned above, has captured the attention of many researchers due to its fundamental role in the regulation of numerous cellular processes. Now we will delve into the world of SUMOylation, exploring its mechanisms, functions, and potential clinical implications.

What is SUMOylation?

SUMOylation refers to the covalent attachment of Small Ubiquitin-like Modifier (SUMO) proteins to target proteins. Just as ubiquitination attaches ubiquitin to proteins to mark them for degradation, SUMOylation modifies proteins by attaching SUMO, but often with very different outcomes. These modifications can dramatically alter a protein’s function, localization, and interactions.

The Mechanics of SUMOylation

Let’s examine the step-by-step process of how SUMOylation occurs:


At the start, an enzyme called E1 (SUMO-activating enzyme) activates SUMO in an ATP-dependent manner. This process involves the formation of a thioester bond between the E1 enzyme and the SUMO protein.


Next, SUMO transfers from the E1 enzyme to an E2-conjugating enzyme called UBC9. This transfer ensures the precise pairing of SUMO with its target protein.


The final step involves the direct transfer of SUMO from UBC9 to the target protein. This transfer happens with the assistance of E3 ligases, although UBC9 can sometimes directly SUMOylate substrates without their help.

Functions and Roles

The process of SUMOylation can influence a diverse range of cellular activities, including:

Transcriptional regulation

SUMOylation can alter the activity of transcription factors and chromatin remodeling enzymes. This modification, in turn, changes the way genes are expressed in the cell.

Protein stability

By SUMOylating specific proteins, their stability might either increase or decrease, affecting their half-life and function within the cell.

Nuclear-cytosolic transport

SUMOylation often regulates the movement of proteins between the nucleus and the cytoplasm. This transport plays a critical role in ensuring proteins are in the right cellular compartment to perform their functions.

Signal transduction

Many signaling pathways, especially those responding to environmental stresses or changes, involve SUMOylated proteins. The modification can either activate or repress signal transduction, depending on the context.

DNA repair

SUMOylation plays a role in DNA damage response. It assists in the recruitment of repair factors to sites of DNA damage, ensuring genomic integrity.

Clinical Implications

Given its vital role in cellular processes, it’s unsurprising that irregularities in SUMOylation can result in diseases. Researchers have linked aberrant SUMOylation to:


The misregulation of SUMOylation can lead to unchecked cell proliferation or resistance to apoptosis, both of which contribute to tumorigenesis.

Neurological disorders

Anomalies in SUMOylation have associations with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.

Heart diseases

Altered SUMOylation can affect cardiac function and has implications in conditions such as heart failure.

With this knowledge, scientists are exploring therapeutic interventions targeting the SUMOylation pathway. Inhibitors or activators of specific enzymes in the pathway can potentially offer new treatment avenues for various diseases.

In summary, SUMOylation stands as a testament to the complexity and sophistication of cellular regulation. By understanding the intricacies of this post-translational modification, researchers not only gain insights into fundamental cellular processes but also open doors to new therapeutic strategies. As studies progress, it’s evident that SUMOylation will remain a hot topic in molecular and clinical research.

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