Fluorogenic reporter enables identification of compounds that inhibit SARS-CoV-2

Junjiao Yang, Yinghong Xiao, Peter V. Lidsky, Chien Ting Wu, Luke R. Bonser, Shiming Peng, Miguel A. Garcia-Knight, Michel Tassetto, Chan I. Chung, Xiaoquan Li, Tsuguhisa Nakayama, Ivan T. Lee, Jayakar V. Nayak, Khadija Ghias, Kirsten L. Hargett, Brian K. Shoichet, David J. Erle, Peter K. Jackson, Raul Andino, Xiaokun Shu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 causes the severe disease COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 infection is initiated by interaction of the viral spike protein and host receptor angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). We report an improved bright and reversible fluorogenic reporter, named SURF (split UnaG-based reversible and fluorogenic protein–protein interaction reporter), that we apply to monitor real-time interactions between spike and ACE2 in living cells. SURF has a large dynamic range with a dark-to-bright fluorescence signal that requires no exogenous cofactors. Utilizing this reporter, we carried out a high-throughput screening of small-molecule libraries. We identified three natural compounds that block replication of SARS-CoV-2 in both Vero cells and human primary nasal and bronchial epithelial cells. Cell biological and biochemical experiments validated all three compounds and showed that they block the early stages of viral infection. Two of the inhibitors, bruceine A and gamabufotalin, were also found to block replication of the Delta and Omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2. Both bruceine A and gamabufotalin exhibited potent antiviral activity in K18-hACE2 and wild-type C57BL6/J mice, as evidenced by reduced viral titres in the lung and brain, and protection from alveolar and peribronchial inflammation in the lung, thereby limiting disease progression. We propose that our fluorescent assay can be applied to identify antiviral compounds with potential as therapeutic treatment for COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)121-134
Number of pages14
JournalNature microbiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Genetics
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Cell Biology


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