Plant-based expression and characterization of SARS-CoV-2 virus-like particles presenting a native spike protein.

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We have investigated the use of transient expression to produce virus-like particles (VLPs) of SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19, in Nicotiana benthamiana. Expression of a native form of the spike (S) protein, either alone or combination with the envelope (E) and membrane (M) proteins, all of which were directed to the plant membranes via their native sequences, was assessed. The full-length S protein, together with degradation products, could be detected in total protein extracts from infiltrated leaves in both cases. Particles with a characteristic “crown-shaped” or “spiky” structure could be purified by density gradient centrifugation. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) using anti-S antibodies showed that 3-fold higher levels of VLPs containing the full-length S protein were obtained by infiltration with S alone, compared to co-infiltration of S with M and E. The S protein within the VLPs could be cleaved by furin in vitro and the particles showed reactivity with serum from recovering COVID-19 patients, but not with human serum taken before the pandemic. These studies show that the native S protein expressed in plants has biological properties similar to those of the parent virus. We show that the approach undertaken is suitable for the production of VLPs from emerging strains and we anticipate that the material will be suitable for functional studies of the S protein, including the assessment of the effects of specific mutations. As the plant-made material is non-infectious, it does not have to be handled under conditions of high containment.