Annual Meeting

Gene changes and long-haul COVID

Airway cells exposed to SARS-CoV-2 spike protein exhibited persisting changes in gene expression
Nancy D. Lamontagne
April 30, 2021

Results from a new cell study suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein can bring about long-term gene expression changes. The findings could help explain why some COVID-19 patients—referred to as COVID long-haulers—experience symptoms such as shortness of breath and dizziness long after clearing the infection.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is covered in tiny spike proteins. During infection, the spike proteins bind with receptors on cells in our body, starting a process that allows the virus to release its genetic material into the inside of the healthy cell.

Courtesy of Julie A. Forrest
Research team members included undergraduate student Ethan Salazar, principal investigator Sharilyn Almodovar and master’s student Nicholas Evans.

“We found that exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein alone was enough to change baseline gene expression in airway cells,” said Nicholas Evans, a master’s student in the laboratory of Sharilyn Almodovar, PhD, at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. “This suggests that symptoms seen in patients may initially result from the spike protein interacting with the cells directly.”

Evans will present the research at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting during the virtual Experimental Biology 2021 meeting, to be held April 27–30.

Culturing human airway cells requires specific conditions that allow cells to mature into the differentiated cells that would be found in the airway. The researchers optimized a previously developed culturing approach known as the air–liquid interface technique so that it would more closely simulate the physiological conditions found in the lung airway. This involved exposing cells to air and then giving them time to mature into airway cells.

The researchers found that cultured human airway cells exposed to both low and high concentrations of purified spike protein showed differences in gene expression that remained even after the cells recovered from the exposure. The top genes included ones related to inflammatory response.

“Our work helps to elucidate changes occurring in patients on the genetic level, which could eventually provide insight into which treatments would work best for specific patients,” said Evans.

The researchers also compared their cultured human airway cells to studies from others where cells were collected from patients with COVID-19 infection. They were able to confirm that the optimized cell culture approach reflected what occurs in patients, making it useful for future translational studies. They plan to use the new approach to better understand how long the genetic changes last and the potential long-term consequences of these changes in relation to long-haul COVID-19 cases.

Evans will present the findings from 12–12:15 p.m. Friday, April 30 (abstract).

Nancy D. Lamontagne

Nancy D. Lamontagne is a science writer and editor at Creative Science Writing based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Join the ASBMB Today mailing list

Sign up to get updates on articles, interviews and events.

Latest in Science

Science highlights or most popular articles

A new way of looking at HDL in pregnancy
Journal News

A new way of looking at HDL in pregnancy

Nov. 30, 2021

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine explore the compositional complexity of high-density lipoprotein in expectant mothers.

How a tiny pet store fish became the center of neuroscience research
News

How a tiny pet store fish became the center of neuroscience research

Nov. 27, 2021

The tropical zebrafish is used extensively in genetics, neuroscience and development labs worldwide.

Science is a human endeavor
Essay

Science is a human endeavor

Nov. 26, 2021

The author learned some difficult and important lessons when he decided to pursue errors in a Nobel laureate’s work.

‘Fatty retina’: A root cause of vision loss in diabetes?
Lipid News

‘Fatty retina’: A root cause of vision loss in diabetes?

Nov. 25, 2021

Abnormalities of lipid metabolism are common in diabetes, so the authors reasoned that the retina might switch its programming in response to an abundance of fuel.

From the journals: MCP
Journal News

From the journals: MCP

Nov. 24, 2021

What’s the role of CD151 in triple-negative breast cancer? How similar are nonstructural proteins between coronavirus homologs? What proteins are candidates for targeting oral cancer?

Flipping the switch
Journal News

Flipping the switch

Nov. 23, 2021

Researchers identify a structural bond that allows a key protein complex to regulate the mTORC1 nutrient-sensing pathway.