Human Norovirus Evolution in a Chronically Infected Host

mSphere. 2017 Mar 29;2(2):e00352-16. doi: 10.1128/mSphere.00352-16. eCollection 2017 Mar-Apr.


Typically, human noroviruses cause symptoms of acute gastroenteritis for 2 to 4 days. Often, the virions are shed in stool for several days after the symptoms recede, which in turn can lead to further contamination and transmission. Moreover, a number of reports have considered that chronic norovirus infections, i.e., lasting months and years, might even function as reservoirs for the generation of novel strains that can escape the herd immunity or have modified binding interactions with histo-blood group antigens (HBGAs). In this study, we analyzed noroviruses isolated from a patient who has presented a chronic infection for more than 6 years. We found that the isolated capsid sequences clustered into two main genetic types (termed A and B), despite a plethora of capsid quasi-sequences. Furthermore, the two genetic types corresponded well with distinct antigenicities. On the other hand, we showed that numerous amino acid substitutions on the capsid surface of genetic types A and B did not alter the HBGA binding profiles. However, divergent binding profiles for types A and B were observed with human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), which structurally mimic HBGAs and may act as natural antivirals. Importantly, the isolated capsid sequences only had approximately 90% amino acid identity with other known sequences, which suggested that transmission of these chronic noroviruses could be limited. IMPORTANCE The norovirus genogroup II genotype 4 (GII.4) variants have approximately 5% divergence in capsid amino acid identity and have dominated over the past decade. The precise reason(s) for the GII.4 emergence and persistence in the human population is still unknown, but some studies have suggested that chronically infected patients might generate novel variants that can cause new epidemics. We examined GII.4 noroviruses isolated from an immunocompromised patient with a long-term infection. Numerous norovirus capsid quasi-species were isolated during the 13-month study. The capsid quasi-species clustered into two genetic and antigenic types. However, the HBGA binding profiles were similar between the two antigenic clusters, indicating that the amino acid substitutions did not alter the HBGA binding interactions. The isolated sequences represented two new GII.4 variants, but similar sequences were not found in the database. These results indicated that chronically infected patients might not generate novel noroviruses that cause outbreaks.

Keywords: chronic infection; evolution; norovirus.