Coronavirus mutation captured in photos using 12-feet-tall microscope

Using cryo-electron microscopy, UBC researchers have revealed the structure of the N501Y spike protein mutant, shown above (in blue) bound to two copies of the ACE2 receptor (in red). (Supplied photo/UBC)

Using 12-feet-tall microscopes, researchers have captured photos of the coronavirus mutation responsible for the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in the U.K.

The photos allow the world to catch a glimpse of a seemingly invisible change that has increased transmission and taken the world by storm.

UBC researchers say they are the first in the world to publish structural images of the N501Y spike protein mutation, which is believed to be partly responsible for why this new variant is so contagious.

The mutation is located on the virus’ spike protein, which it uses to attach itself to human cells, said Dr. Sriram Subramaniam, a professor in the faculty of medicine’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology

“The images we captured provide the first structural glimpse of the N501Y mutant and show that the changes resulting from the mutation are localized,” he said in a statement.

The pictures, taken at “near-atomic resolution,” add to the growing body of data indicating that currently available (no hyphen) COVID-19 vaccines are likely to be effective at preventing mild and serious cases of COVID-19.

“Our analysis revealed that even though the N501Y mutant can bind and enter our cells more readily, it can still be neutralized by antibodies that block the entry of the unmutated version of the virus into cells,” Subramaniam said.

Of particular note is that the mutation has only happened to the outer spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to human cells. But, Subramaniam said, it can still be blocked from entering human cells through antibodies created by the vaccine.

“The N501Y mutation is the only mutation in the B.1.1.7 variant that is located on the portion of the spike protein that binds to the human ACE2 receptor, which is the enzyme on the surface of our cells that serves as the entry gate for (COVID-19),” Subramaniam said.

Large, cryon-electron microscopes were used to photograph the protein spike.

“This powerful imaging technology uses beams of electrons to visualize shapes of tissues and cells using ultra-cooling, or ‘cryo’ techniques—essentially, the imaging of samples at liquid nitrogen temperatures,” he said.