Although a large number of immune epitopes have been identified in the influenza A virus (IAV) hemagglutinin (HA) protein using various experimental systems, it is unclear which are involved in protective immunity to natural infection in humans. We developed a data mining approach analyzing natural H1N1 human isolates to identify HA protein regions that may be targeted by the human immune system and can predict the evolution of IAV. We identified 16 amino acid sites experiencing diversifying selection during the evolution of prepandemic seasonal H1N1 strains and found that 11 sites were located in experimentally determined B-cell/antibody (Ab) epitopes, including three distinct neutralizing Caton epitopes: Sa, Sb, and Ca2 [A. J. Caton, G. G. Brownlee, J. W. Yewdell, and W. Gerhard, Cell 31:417-427, 1982, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0092-8674(82)90135-0]. We predicted that these diversified epitope regions would be the targets of mutation as the 2009 H1N1 pandemic (pH1N1) lineage evolves in response to the development of population-level protective immunity in humans. Using a chi-squared goodness-of-fit test, we identified 10 amino acid sites that significantly differed between the pH1N1 isolates and isolates from the recent 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 influenza seasons. Three of these sites were located in the same diversified B-cell/Ab epitope regions as identified in the analysis of prepandemic sequences, including Sa and Sb. As predicted, hemagglutination inhibition (HI) assays using human sera from subjects vaccinated with the initial pH1N1 isolate demonstrated reduced reactivity against 2013-2014 isolates. Taken together, these results suggest that diversifying selection analysis can identify key immune epitopes responsible for protective immunity to influenza virus in humans and thereby predict virus evolution.
Importance: The WHO estimates that approximately 5 to 10% of adults and 20 to 30% of children in the world are infected by influenza virus each year. While an adaptive immune response helps eliminate the virus following acute infection, the virus rapidly evolves to evade the established protective memory immune response, thus allowing for the regular seasonal cycles of influenza virus infection. The analytical approach described here, which combines an analysis of diversifying selection with an integration of immune epitope data, has allowed us to identify antigenic regions that contribute to protective immunity and are therefore the key targets of immune evasion by the virus. This information can be used to determine when sequence variations in seasonal influenza virus strains have affected regions responsible for protective immunity in order to decide when new vaccine formulations are warranted.
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