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Chemistry researcher recognized globally for his detective work on coronavirus

Chemistry researcher recognized globally for his detective work on coronavirus

MARCH 16, 2021 — The recent anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic is a significant moment for Francis Yoshimoto, assistant professor of chemistry at UTSA. The magnitude of the developing pandemic in March 2020 inspired him to utilize his training in the scientific community to accelerate their knowledge of SARS-CoV-2, helping advance the development of vaccines, therapeutic treatments and research related to combating the virus.

Yoshimoto’s COVID-related research earned him two citations by the World Health Organization. It’s one of the highest levels of recognition a research scientist can receive.

“I wasn’t expecting to be cited by the WHO, and I am glad that my research was able to make a positive impact,” Yoshimoto said.

“Little was known about SARS-CoV-2 at the time, and I felt compelled to make a useful tool to aid in global research efforts.”

Like the rest of us, Yoshimoto was surprised by how quickly the world changed as a global pandemic was declared. Unable to work on campus at UTSA, and with limited movement outside of his home, he began immersing himself in learning more about the virus that causes COVID-19.

“Little was known about SARS-CoV-2 at the time, and I felt compelled to make a useful tool to aid in global research efforts,” Yoshimoto said. “I used biochemical research databases and software to compile and analyze what was currently known about similar viruses.”

One particular virus analyzed was SARS-CoV-1, the virus that caused the SARS outbreak of 2003. Yoshimoto combed through published papers to compare and align all the protein sequences between SARS CoV-1 and SARS CoV-2.

In May 2020, just weeks after starting his research, he had a research article published in Springer’s The Protein Journal titled “The Proteins of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus‑2 (SARS-CoV‑2 or n‑COV19), the Cause of COVID‑19.” His work and expertise became highly sought with researchers in the field. So far, the paper has been cited more than 144 times, including by the WHO, and downloaded more than 21,000 times.

“A single, concise resource to describe all of the proteins present in SARS-CoV-2 had never existed before, so there was a lot of interest with the work I had done,” Yoshimoto said. “I now did something to help people refer to one document where they can quickly learn what this virus is about, what proteins are involved, all in one place and refer to other papers referenced within the document to learn more.”

The popularity of the paper drew the attention of The Protein Journal’s editor-in-chief, who invited Yoshimoto to join its editorial board. He was subsequently invited to be a guest editor of a special issue on COVID protein research due to the exploding amount of COVID-related research occurring throughout the world.

Reviewing work done by other COVID researchers helped him realize more work could be done to understand the various proteins belonging to the virus. Furthermore, because of the intense global effort to rapidly publish urgent research findings on this virus, Yoshimoto found that the data available on COVID-19 was scattered and overwhelming for other researchers to locate.

His follow-up research provides an ongoing update of the recent work published on SARS-CoV-2. In fact, 75 out of the 106 papers he cited were either published in 2020 or 2021. In the paper, he also digs deeper to compare the structures of the SARS-CoV-2 proteins with a focus on detailing the spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells. “A Biochemical Perspective of the Nonstructural Proteins (NSPs) and the Spike Protein of SARS CoV‑2,” was published on February 24, 2021, and will be incorporated into the second special issue on COVID proteins.

“In my first paper, I gave an overview of the proteins of SARS-CoV-2 by comparing it to a previously well-studied virus, SARS-CoV-1. In the second paper, I wanted to provide an update on the research towards understanding the spike protein,” Yoshimoto said. “The spike protein is the basis of the vaccines and also the primary cause of the recent increased infectiousness of the mutant strains of the virus. I also added details of 23 new proteins discovered by other scientists, which could reveal previously unknown features of this virus.”

He took this paper a step further by creating images of each of the proteins by using the experimental data from the Protein Data Bank, a repository that has structures of proteins. For instance, he showed images of the virus’s spike protein and showed how it changes its 3-D shape when it binds to the human’s receptor protein, the ACE2 protein, to initiate infection. Understanding these changes in the protein structures provide a better understanding of how the recent mutant strains are also more infective.

“Proteins are like Legos. Separate pieces are joined together to create a 3-D structure,” Yoshimoto explained.

Though the accolades and depth of work are impressive for this young, rising star in research chemistry, it’s making a significant difference in the fight against COVID that matters most.

⇒ Yoshimoto’s WHO citations on SARS-CoV-2: Diagnostic Testing and Genomic Sequencing for Public Health Goals
⇒ Yoshimoto’s research on protein blockers designed to fight obesity and heart disease
⇒ The Department of Chemistry at UTSA

“People are still dying,” he said. “We’re still going through this even though vaccines are rolling out; we still have to be careful.”

Yoshimoto’s work is another impactful example from UTSA’s vast team of researchers to study, treat and stop SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused COVID-19.

Bruce Forey

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of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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