Coronavirus envelope protein

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Envelope protein
Illustration of a SARS-CoV-2 virion
Model of the external structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virion.[1]
Blue: envelope
Turquoise: spike glycoprotein (S)
Red: envelope proteins (E)
Green: membrane proteins (M)
Orange: glycans

The envelope (E) protein is the smallest and least well-characterized of the four major structural proteins found in coronavirus virions.[2][3][4] It is an integral membrane protein less than 110 amino acid residues long;[2] in SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of Covid-19, the E protein is 75 residues long.[5] Although it is not necessarily essential for viral replication, absence of the E protein may produce abnormally assembled viral capsids or reduced replication.[2][3] E is a multifunctional protein[6] and, in addition to its role as a structural protein in the viral capsid, it is thought to be involved in viral assembly, likely functions as a viroporin, and is involved in viral pathogenesis.[2][5]


Solid-state NMR structure of the pentameric pore formed by the transmembrane helices of the SARS-CoV-2 E protein, which forms a viroporin permeable to cations.[5][4] Rendered from PDB: 7K3G

The E protein consists of a short hydrophilic N-terminal region, a hydrophobic helical transmembrane domain, and a somewhat hydrophilic C-terminal region. In SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2, the C-terminal region contains a PDZ domain binding motif (PBM).[2][5] This feature appears to be conserved only in the alpha and beta coronavirus groups, but not gamma.[2] In the beta and gamma groups, a conserved proline residue is found in the C-terminal region likely involved in targeting the protein to the Golgi.[2]

The transmembrane helices of the E proteins of SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 can oligomerize and have been shown in vitro to form pentameric structures with central pores that serve as cation-selective ion channels.[5] Both viruses' E protein pentamers have been structurally characterized by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.[5][7]

The membrane topology of the E protein has been studied in a number of coronaviruses with inconsistent results; the protein's orientation in the membrane may be variable.[3] The balance of evidence suggests the most common orientation has the C-terminus oriented toward the cytoplasm.[8] Studies of SARS-CoV-2 E protein are consistent with this orientation.[5][9]

Post-translational modifications

In some, but not all, coronaviruses, the E protein is post-translationally modified by palmitoylation on conserved cysteine residues.[2][8] In the SARS-CoV E protein, one glycosylation site has been observed, which may influence membrane topology;[8] however, the functional significance of E glycosylation is unclear.[2] Ubiquitination of SARS-CoV E has also been described, though its functional significance is also not known.[2]

Expression and localization

Genomic information
SARS-CoV-2 genome.svg
Genomic organisation of isolate Wuhan-Hu-1, the earliest sequenced sample of SARS-CoV-2, indicating the location of the E gene
NCBI genome ID86693
Genome size29,903 bases
Year of completion2020
Genome browser (UCSC)

The E protein is expressed at high abundance in infected cells. However, only a small amount of the total E protein produced is found in assembled virions.[2][4] E protein is localized to the endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, and endoplasmic-reticulum–Golgi intermediate compartment (ERGIC), the intracellular compartment that gives rise to the coronavirus viral envelope.[2][5]



Studies in different coronaviruses have reached different conclusions about whether E is essential to viral replication. In some coronaviruses, including MERS-CoV, E has been reported to be essential.[10] In others, including mouse coronavirus[11] and SARS-CoV, E is not essential, though its absence reduces viral titer,[12] in some cases by introducing propagation defects or causing abnormal capsid morphology.[2]

Virions and viral assembly

Illustration of a coronavirus virion in the respiratory mucosa, showing the positions of the four structural proteins and components of the extracellular environment.[13]

The E protein is found in assembled virions where it forms protein-protein interactions with the coronavirus membrane protein (M), the most abundant of the four structural proteins contained in the viral capsid.[2][4] The interaction between E and M occurs through their respective C-termini on the cytoplasmic side of the membrane.[2] In most coronaviruses, E and M are sufficient to form virus-like particles,[2][4] though SARS-CoV has been reported to depend on N as well.[14] There is good evidence that E is involved in inducing membrane curvature to create the typical spherical coronavirus virion.[2][15] It is likely that E is involved in viral budding or scission, although its role in this process has not been well characterized.[2][4][15]


In its pentameric state, E forms cation-selective ion channels and likely functions as a viroporin.[5] This may disrupt ion homeostasis, alter membrane permeability, and modulate pH in the host cell, which may facilitate viral release.[2][4] The E protein's role as a viroporin appears to be involved in pathogenesis and may be related to activation of the inflammasome.[3][16] In SARS-CoV, mutations that disrupt E's ion channel function result in attenuated pathogenesis in animal models despite little effect on viral growth.[10]

Interactions with host proteins

Cryo-electron microscopy structure of the interaction between the SARS-CoV-2 E protein PDZ-binding motif (magenta) and a construct containing the PDZ (blue), SH3 (yellow), and guanylate kinase-like (GK, green) domains from a host cell protein, human PALS1.[17]

Protein-protein interactions between E and proteins in the host cell are best described in SARS-CoV and occur via the C-terminal PDZ domain binding motif. The SARS-CoV E protein has been reported to interact with five host cell proteins: Bcl-xL, PALS1, syntenin, sodium/potassium (Na+/K+) ATPase α-1 subunit, and stomatin.[2] The interaction with PALS1 may be related to pathogenesis via the resulting disruption in tight junctions.[3][10] This interaction has also been identified in SARS-CoV-2.[17]

Evolution and conservation

Across all coronavirus groups, the sequence of the E protein is not well conserved, with sequence identities reaching under 30%.[12] In laboratory experiments on mouse hepatitis virus, substitution of E proteins from different coronaviruses, even from different groups, could produce viable viruses, suggesting that significant sequence diversity can be tolerated in functional E proteins.[18] The SARS-CoV-2 E protein is very similar to that of SARS-CoV, with three substitutions and one deletion.[4] A study of SARS-CoV-2 sequences suggests that E is evolving relatively slowly compared to other structural proteins.[19] The conserved nature of the envelope protein among SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 variants has led it to be researched as a potential target for universal coronavirus vaccine development.[20][21]


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