The COVID-19 disease has plagued over 110 countries and has resulted in over 4,000 deaths within 10 weeks. We compare the interaction between the human ACE2 receptor and the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein with that of other pathogenic coronaviruses using molecular dynamics simulations. SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2, and HCoV-NL63 recognize ACE2 as the natural receptor but present a distinct binding interface to ACE2 and a different network of residue-residue contacts. SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 have comparable binding affinities achieved by balancing energetics and dynamics. The SARS-CoV-2 - ACE2 complex contains a higher number of contacts, a larger interface area, and decreased interface residue fluctuations relative to SARS-CoV. These findings expose an exceptional evolutionary exploration exerted by coronaviruses toward host recognition. We postulate that the versatility of cell receptor binding strategies has immediate implications on therapeutic strategies.
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