Covid-19 and carbs: How coronavirus hides and attaches to cells

Dr Elisa Fadda, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry, Maynooth University

Your research on the Covid-19 virus was featured recently by the New York Times – can you tell us more?

That was so exciting. It was about the work we have been doing with international collaborators on the carbohydrate molecules that surround the spike protein on the surface of the Covid-19 virus.

The journalist, Carl Zimmer, did a super job of writing about it, and the story was first on the front page of the New York Times, and then a few days later they ran a fantastic set of images about the project in the centre of the newspaper. I am going to frame it.

Why are you interested in the carbohydrates on the outside of the virus?


A lot of people talk about the proteins on the surface of the virus, but then you have this “fur” of carbohydrates (or glycans) linked to the protein surface, and they affect the function hugely.

We have been showing how the glycans on the spike protein not only help the virus to hide from our immune system, but they also enable the spike protein to move in particular ways so that the virus can attach to our cells and get inside them.

How do you look at those carbohydrates?

In my group in Maynooth we use very large computers from national and EU research facilities to simulate the carbohydrate structures, properties and dynamics, and collaborators around the world complement that with experiments in their labs.

What were you working on before Covid-19?

We were looking at how a sugar called fucose present in carbohydrates on antibodies makes them less effective. We can see that the presence of fucose increases the glycans’ dynamics, destabilising the antibody’s structure, and that is what you don’t want if you are, say, developing a therapeutic antibody.

Were you always a carbohydrate person?

No, not at all. I had the good fortune to grow up in Sardinia, and studied chemistry there. Then I did my PhD in Montreal on hardcore quantum physics. After that I worked at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and this is where I developed a love for biophysics – I saw how the fundamental research could be applied to developing new therapies and diagnostics. Then I moved to Ireland and I worked in NUI Galway on carbohydrate research before coming to Maynooth.

What has life been like for you during Covid-19?

Work has been extremely busy. While nobody wants this pandemic, I think it is helping people to appreciate the importance of carbohydrates in biology. Until about 15-20 years ago, carbohydrates were considered a nuisance and decoration, something that needed to be removed so you could examine the protein.

When I would go to conferences, people would say, “Please, spare me the carbohydrate talk”, but now I am being invited to talk about carbohydrates all over the place. I have also been fortunate to be able to work from home and online. I don’t think I will ever wear high heels again.

How do you escape from work if you are at home all day?

I enjoy yoga at home. And I am lucky to live very close to the Phoenix Park, and I go running there. I am a terrible runner, I am always getting injured, but I love it. It clears my head.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation