Nonstructural protein 1 (NS1) of influenza A virus regulates innate immune responses via various mechanisms. We previously showed that a naturally occurring deletion (the EALQR motif) in the NS1 effector domain of an H5N1 swine-origin avian influenza virus impairs the inhibition of type I interferon (IFN) in chicken fibroblasts and attenuates virulence in chickens. Here we found that the virus bearing this deletion in its NS1 effector domain showed diminished inhibition of IFN-related cytokine expression and attenuated virulence in mice. We further showed that deletion of the EALQR motif disrupted NS1 dimerization, impairing double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) sequestration and competitive binding with RIG-I. In addition, the EALQR-deleted NS1 protein could not bind to TRIM25, unlike full-length NS1, and was less able to block TRIM25 oligomerization and self-ubiquitination, further impairing the inhibition of TRIM25-mediated RIG-I ubiquitination compared to that with full-length NS1. Our data demonstrate that the EALQR deletion prevents NS1 from blocking RIG-I-mediated IFN induction via a novel mechanism to attenuate viral replication and virulence in mammalian cells and animals.
IMPORTANCE H5 highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses have infected more than 800 individuals across 16 countries, with an overall case fatality rate of 53%. Among viral proteins, nonstructural protein 1 (NS1) of influenza virus is considered a key determinant for type I interferon (IFN) antagonism, pathogenicity, and host range. However, precisely how NS1 modulates virus-host interaction, facilitating virus survival, is not fully understood. Here we report that a naturally occurring deletion (of the EALQR motif) in the NS1 effector domain of an H5N1 swine-origin avian influenza virus disrupted NS1 dimerization, which diminished the blockade of IFN induction via the RIG-I signaling pathway, thereby impairing virus replication and virulence in the host. Our study demonstrates that the EALQR motif of NS1 regulates virus fitness to attain a virus-host compromise state in animals and identifies this critical motif as a potential target for the future development of small molecular drugs and attenuated vaccines.