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Many pathogens exploit host cell-surface glycans. However, precise analyses of glycan ligands binding with heavily modified pathogen proteins can be confounded by overlapping sugar signals and/or compounded with known experimental constraints. Universal saturation transfer analysis (uSTA) builds on existing nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to provide an automated workflow for quantitating protein-ligand interactions. uSTA reveals that early-pandemic, B-origin-lineage severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) spike trimer binds sialoside sugars in an "end-on" manner. uSTA-guided modeling and a high-resolution cryo-electron microscopy structure implicate the spike N-terminal domain (NTD) and confirm end-on binding. This finding rationalizes the effect of NTD mutations that abolish sugar binding in SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern. Together with genetic variance analyses in early pandemic patient cohorts, this binding implicates a sialylated polylactosamine motif found on tetraantennary N-linked glycoproteins deep in the human lung as potentially relevant to virulence and/or zoonosis.

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COVID-19, Cryoelectron Microscopy, Genetic Variation, Host-Pathogen Interactions, Humans, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, Biomolecular, Polysaccharides, Protein Binding, Protein Domains, SARS-CoV-2, Sialic Acids, Spike Glycoprotein, Coronavirus