Nature Communications (2020) 11:6041
Nucleocapsid protein of SARS-CoV-2 phase separates into RNA-rich polymerase-containing condensates
The etiologic agent of the Covid-19 pandemic is the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The viral membrane of SARS-CoV-2 surrounds a helical nucleocapsid in which the viral genome is encapsulated by the nucleocapsid protein. The nucleocapsid protein of SARS-CoV-2 is produced at high levels within infected cells, enhances the efficiency of viral RNA transcription, and is essential for viral replication. Here, we show that RNA induces cooperative liquid–liquid phase separation of the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein. In agreement with its ability to phase separate in vitro, we show that the protein associates in cells with stress granules, cytoplasmic RNA/protein granules that form through liquid-liquid phase separation and are modulated by viruses to maximize replication efficiency. Liquid–liquid phase separation generates high-density protein/RNA condensates that recruit the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase complex of SARS-CoV-2 providing a mechanism for efficient transcription of viral RNA. Inhibition of RNA-induced phase separation of the nucleocapsid protein by small molecules or biologics thus can interfere with a key step in the SARS-CoV-2 replication cycle.