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The ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has brought an urgent need for animal models to study the pathogenicity of the virus. Herein, we generated and characterized a novel mouse-adapted SARS-CoV-2 strain, named MASCp36, that causes severe acute respiratory symptoms and mortality in standard laboratory mice. Particularly, this model exhibits age and gender related skewed distribution of mortality akin to severe COVID-19, and the 50% lethal dose (LD50) of MASCp36 was 58 PFU in 9-month-old, male BALB/c mice. Deep sequencing identified three amino acid substitutions, N501Y, Q493H, and K417N, subsequently emerged at the receptor binding domain (RBD) of MASCp36, during in vivo passaging. All three mutations in RBD significantly enhanced the binding affinity to its endogenous receptor, mouse ACE2 (mACE2). Cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) analysis of human ACE2 (hACE2) or mACE2 in complex with the RBD of MASCp36 at 3.1 to 3.7 angstrom resolution elucidates molecular basis for the receptor-binding switch driven by specific amino acid substitutions. Interestingly, N501Y and Q493H enhanced the binding affinity to human ACE2 (hACE2); while triple mutations N501Y/Q493H/K417N decreased affinity to hACE2, thus led to the reduced infectivity of MASCp36 to human cells. Our study not only provides a robust platform for studying the pathogenesis of severe COVID-19 and rapid evaluation of coutermeasures against SARS-CoV-2, but also unveils the molecular mechanism for the rapid adaption and evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in human and animals.

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