First Corona gene cloned by Sjef Smeekens

Photo of Sjef Smeekens in 1984
Sjef Smeekens in 1984

In the early 1980s, as a Utrecht University Biology Master student, Sjef Smeekens worked with Willy Spaan (now chairman of LUMC) and Peter Rottier on a mouse hepatitis coronavirus at the department of Veterinary Virology. He had the good fortune to be given the opportunity to travel to the EMBL laboratory in Heidelberg. In the Biosafety Facility of EMBL, Sjef and EMBL post-doc John Armstrong were able to clone Coronavirus RNA and to sequence the very first coronavirus gene, the E1 glycoprotein. The E1 glycoprotein gets arrested in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) of the infected cell and is responsible for budding of the virus in the ER lumen of the cell.

The first of the coronavirus family – so named because of the ‘crown’ of spikes that project from their surface – was discovered in the 1930s. Other viruses from the coronavirus family followed soon after, among which the mouse hepatitis virus (MHV) that Sjef worked on. This virus, which only infects mice, is infamous for its high mortality rates among colonies of laboratory mice.

John Armstrong, Heiner Niemann, Sjef Smeekens, Peter Rottier & Graham Warren. Sequence and topology of a model intracellular membrane protein, El glycoprotein, from a coronavirus (1984). Nature 308, 751.