February 8, 2024
News Release

EMSL User Project Leads to Key Molecular Culprit Active in COVID-19

“Zombie” peptide provokes immune storm in patients

An image of the virus that causes COVID-19

A fragment from the SARS-CoV-2 virus can cause an aggressive immune reaction in patients with COVID-19, even after the virus has been cleared from the body.


(Image by Dotted Yeti | Shutterstock.com)

RICHLAND, Wash.—A new finding that helps explain the severe and long-lasting effects of COVID-19 has its roots in a project conducted at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory during the early stages of the pandemic.

Back in 2020, Matthew Wolfgang of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill set out to explore the proteins, lipids and metabolites active in patients. His proposal to the EMSL user program was accepted, and his team worked with several EMSL and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory scientists to explore changes in the immune system. The team discovered and isolated three peptides, or pieces of proteins, exclusively in patients who were severely ill.

Scientists have shown that one of these protein fragments sets off a severe reaction, provoking a storm of immune molecules that aggravate the severity of the disease. The peptide, a remnant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, circulates in some patients even after the virus is destroyed. The finding could help explain long COVID, where patients have symptoms months or years after the virus is cleared from the body.

“The viral remnant, left over after the virus is destroyed, can trigger an immune response more harmful to the patient than the virus itself,” said scientist Geremy Clair, who led the PNNL team.

The initial EMSL project was made possible through funding provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which allowed the Department of Energy, Office of Science user facility to pivot some resources to focus on pandemic-related research. PNNL authors of the paper, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, include Athena Schepmoes, Mary Lipton, Rui Zhao, Joshua Adkins and Clair.

More information about the “zombie” viral fragment and its effects are in the news release from the University of California, Los Angeles, where Gerard Wong led the recent study.

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About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://www.energy.gov/science/. For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.