Published: Nov. 5, 2021 By

Baker’s yeast has been the secret ingredient to successful sourdough during the COVID-19 pandemic — and it has enabled a scientific breakthrough. 

CU Boulder researchers have genetically modified a version of this fast-growing microorganism to express the viral spike proteins found on the COVID-19-causing virus, SARS-CoV-2. 

They’ve also used this yeast to develop a platform that quickly identifies new SARS-CoV-2 mutations that enable the virus to escape antibodies and infect cells. This information could aid the development of more effective booster vaccines and tailored antibody treatments for patients with severe cases of COVID-19.  

“We’ve developed a predictive tool that can tell you ahead of time which antibodies are going to be effective against circulating strains of the virus,” said Timothy Whitehead, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and lead author of the 2021 research published in Cell Reports

But the implications for this technology are more profound. 

“If you can predict what the variants will be in a given season, you could get vaccinated to match the sequence that will occur and short-circuit this seasonal variation.” 

Researchers working in labs have predictively identified some of the same mutations circulating the globe, plus additional mutations with the potential to evade our immune systems. 

Due to the adaptability of new mRNA vaccines, which work with spike proteins, the applications of this research are not limited to one virus, said Whitehead.

 “You can use it for mapping trajectories for influenza and for HIV potentially; for other viral diseases that are known, and also potentially emerging pandemic ones,” he said. 

Read a longer version of this story in CU Boulder Today.

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Photos by Casey A. Cass