The spike protein in SARS-CoV-2 (SARS-2-S) interacts with the human ACE2 receptor to gain entry into a cell to initiate infection. Both Pfizer/BioNTech’s BNT162b2 and Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine candidates are based on stabilized mRNA encoding prefusion SARS-2-S that can be produced after the mRNA is delivered into the human cell and translated. SARS-2-S is cleaved into S1 and S2 subunits, with S1 serving the function of receptor-binding and S2 serving the function of membrane fusion. Here, I dissect in detail the various domains of SARS-2-S and their functions discovered through a variety of different experimental and theoretical approaches to build a foundation for a comprehensive mechanistic understanding of how SARS-2-S works to achieve its function of mediating cell entry and subsequent cell-to-cell transmission. The integration of structure and function of SARS-2-S in this review should enhance our understanding of the dynamic processes involving receptor binding, multiple cleavage events, membrane fusion, viral entry, as well as the emergence of new viral variants. I highlighted the relevance of structural domains and dynamics to vaccine development, and discussed reasons for the spike protein to be frequently featured in the conspiracy theory claiming that SARS-CoV-2 is artificially created.
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