Adaptive strategies of the influenza virus polymerase for replication in humans

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Dec 15;106(50):21312-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0911915106. Epub 2009 Dec 7.


Transmission of influenza viruses into the human population requires surmounting barriers to cross-species infection. Changes in the influenza polymerase overcome one such barrier. Viruses isolated from birds generally contain polymerases with the avian-signature glutamic acid at amino acid 627 in the PB2 subunit. These polymerases display restricted activity in human cells. An adaptive change in this residue from glutamic acid to the human-signature lysine confers high levels of polymerase activity in human cells. This mutation permits escape from a species-specific restriction factor that targets polymerases from avian viruses. A 2009 swine-origin H1N1 influenza A virus recently established a pandemic infection in humans, even though the virus encodes a PB2 with the restrictive glutamic acid at amino acid 627. We show here that the 2009 H1N1 virus has acquired second-site suppressor mutations in its PB2 polymerase subunit that convey enhanced polymerase activity in human cells. Introduction of this polymorphism into the PB2 subunit of a primary avian isolate also increased polymerase activity and viral replication in human and porcine cells. An alternate adaptive strategy has also been identified, whereby introduction of a human PA subunit into an avian polymerase overcomes restriction in human cells. These data reveal a strategy used by the 2009 H1N1 influenza A virus and identify other pathways by which avian and swine-origin viruses may evolve to enhance replication, and potentially pathogenesis, in humans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds
  • Cell Line
  • Humans
  • Influenza A Virus, H1N1 Subtype / genetics*
  • Influenza A Virus, H1N1 Subtype / pathogenicity*
  • Influenza, Human / virology*
  • Mutation
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Protein Subunits / genetics
  • RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase / genetics*
  • Species Specificity
  • Swine
  • Virus Replication / genetics


  • Protein Subunits
  • RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase