Reassortment and mutation of the avian influenza virus polymerase PA subunit overcome species barriers

J Virol. 2012 Feb;86(3):1750-7. doi: 10.1128/JVI.06203-11. Epub 2011 Nov 16.


The emergence of new pandemic influenza A viruses requires overcoming barriers to cross-species transmission as viruses move from animal reservoirs into humans. This complicated process is driven by both individual gene mutations and genome reassortments. The viral polymerase complex, composed of the proteins PB1, PB2, and PA, is a major factor controlling host adaptation, and reassortment events involving polymerase gene segments occurred with past pandemic viruses. Here we investigate the ability of polymerase reassortment to restore the activity of an avian influenza virus polymerase that is normally impaired in human cells. Our data show that the substitution of human-origin PA subunits into an avian influenza virus polymerase alleviates restriction in human cells and increases polymerase activity in vitro. Reassortants with 2009 pandemic H1N1 PA proteins were the most active. Mutational analyses demonstrated that the majority of the enhancing activity in human PA results from a threonine-to-serine change at residue 552. Reassortant viruses with avian polymerases and human PA subunits, or simply the T552S mutation, displayed faster replication kinetics in culture and increased pathogenicity in mice compared to those containing a wholly avian polymerase complex. Thus, the acquisition of a human PA subunit, or the signature T552S mutation, is a potential mechanism to overcome the species-specific restriction of avian polymerases and increase virus replication. Our data suggest that the human, avian, swine, and 2009 H1N1-like viruses that are currently cocirculating in pig populations set the stage for PA reassortments with the potential to generate novel viruses that could possess expanded tropism and enhanced pathogenicity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line
  • Humans
  • Influenza A virus / enzymology
  • Influenza A virus / genetics*
  • Mutation*
  • Reassortant Viruses*
  • Species Specificity