Receptor recognition and binding is the first step of viral infection and a key determinant of host specificity. The inability of avian influenza viruses to effectively bind human-like sialylated receptors is a major impediment to their efficient transmission in humans and pandemic capacity. Influenza H9N2 viruses are endemic in poultry across Asia and parts of Africa where they occasionally infect humans and are therefore considered viruses with zoonotic potential. We previously described H9N2 viruses, including several isolated from human zoonotic cases, showing a preference for human-like receptors. Here we take a mutagenesis approach, making viruses with single or multiple substitutions in H9 haemagglutinin and test binding to avian and human receptor analogues using biolayer interferometry. We determine the genetic basis of preferences for alternative avian receptors and for human-like receptors, describing amino acid motifs at positions 190, 226 and 227 that play a major role in determining receptor specificity, and several other residues such as 159, 188, 193, 196, 198 and 225 that play a smaller role. Furthermore, we show changes at residues 135, 137, 147, 157, 158, 184, 188, and 192 can also modulate virus receptor avidity and that substitutions that increased or decreased the net positive charge around the haemagglutinin receptor-binding site show increases and decreases in avidity, respectively. The motifs we identify as increasing preference for the human-receptor will help guide future H9N2 surveillance efforts and facilitate our understanding of the emergence of influenza viruses with increased zoonotic potential.
IMPORTANCE As of 2020, over 60 infections of humans by H9N2 influenza viruses have been recorded in countries where the virus is endemic. Avian-like cellular receptors are the primary target for these viruses. However, given that human infections have been detected on an almost monthly basis since 2015, there may be a capacity for H9N2 viruses to evolve and gain the ability to target human-like cellular receptors. Here we identify molecular signatures that can cause viruses to bind human-like receptors, and we identify the molecular basis for the distinctive preference for sulphated receptors displayed by the majority of recent H9N2 viruses. This work will help guide future surveillance by providing markers that signify the emergence of viruses with enhanced zoonotic potential as well as improving understanding of the basis of influenza virus receptor-binding.