The SciForAll group at the University of Toronto has produced a Structural Biology guide to understanding new variants of the novel coronavirus. Their main objective is to share complex science with the general public, generating interactive and scientifically accurate content in multiple languages.

The genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is one of the largest among all coronaviruses, allowing the virus to produce many proteins that are essential for its functioning. Whether a certain mutation in a viral protein can make it more or less infectious may be predicted by studying the shape and structure of the protein.

When talking about the SARS-CoV-2 variants, we must center our focus on the Spike protein, located on the surface of the virus. Knowing the shape of this protein is important since the Spike mediates viral entry into host cells via the host’s ACE2 receptor. Mutations in the Spike protein can change how well the virus enters a cell and thus changes the ability of the virus to cause disease. Since the Spike protein is on the surface of the virus, its shape also influences the ability of our immune system to detect the virus and stop it from infecting our cells.

The new infographic provided on the SciForAll website (sciforall.org) details how the structure of the Spike protein is changed by some of the mutations present on the newly identified variants of SARS-CoV-2, and their current observed effects on the progress of COVID-19. At the same time, the most recent literature on vaccine efficacy against these new variants has been presented in an easy-to-understand manner.

The SciForAll team were recently interviewed about this project for a CTV News story. SciforAll is co-lead by Graduate students Amir Arellano Saab of Cell & Systems Biology and Katrina Haas of BioMedical Communications, who apply their knowledge of Structural Biology and Science Communication. Structural Biology studies the composition and behaviour of small and large molecules like proteins, DNA and other chemicals. This field incorporates several disciplines, such as Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Physics and Computer Science to visualize and study the 3D structure of a protein.

SciForAll comprises a Structural Biology repository where users can interact with real proteins, learn about their main features and understand their importance for the development of drugs and vaccines. Additionally, it has kids and public health sections, and the whole site is accessible in English, Spanish (translated by Angélica Molina), French (translated by CSB’s Alexandre Martel), and Simplified Chinese (translated by CSB’s Rosiey Yang). At this point, SciForAll has reached people across the 5 populated continents.

This project is sponsored by the University of Toronto (UofT Global Award) and the Government of Canada through a TakingITGlobal grant.