The plant virus cowpea mosaic virus (CPMV) is a natural nanocarrier that has been developed as a platform technology for the delivery of various payloads including peptide epitopes for vaccines, contrast agents for imaging, and drugs for therapy. Genetic fusion and chemical conjugations are the mainstay approaches to load the active ingredient to the exterior and/or interior of CPMV. However, these methods have limitations; genetic engineering is limited to biologics, and chemical alteration often requires multistep reactions with modification of both CPMV and the active ingredient. Either method can also result in particle instability. Therefore, to provide an alternate path toward CPMV functionalization, we report the isolation of peptides that specifically bind to CPMV, termed CPMV-binding peptides (CBP). We used a commercial M13 phage display 7-mer peptide library to pan for and select peptides that selectively bind to CPMV. Biopanning and characterization of lead candidates resulted in isolation of the motif “GWRVSEF/L” as the CPMV-specific motif with phenylalanine (F) at the seventh position being stronger than leucine (L). Specificity to CPMV was demonstrated, and cross-reactivity toward other plant viruses was not observed. To demonstrate cargo loading, GWRVSEF was tagged with biotin, fluorescein isothiocyanate (FITC), and a human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2)-specific targeting peptide ligand. Display of the active ingredient was confirmed, and utility of tagged and targeted CPMV in cell binding assays was demonstrated. The CBP functionalization strategy offers a new avenue for CPMV nanoparticle functionalization and should offer a versatile tool to add active ingredients that otherwise may be difficult to conjugate or display.
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