The origin of internal genes contributes to the replication and transmission fitness of H7N9 avian influenza virus

H9N2 avian influenza viruses (AIVs) have donated internal gene segments during the emergence of zoonotic AIVs, including H7N9. We used reverse genetics to generate A/Anhui/1/13 (H7N9) and three reassortant viruses (2:6 H7N9) which contained the hemagglutinin and neuraminidase from Anhui/13 (H7N9) and the six internal gene segments from H9N2 AIVs belonging to (i) G1 subgroup 2, (ii) G1 subgroup 3, or (iii) BJ94 lineages, enzootic in different regions throughout Asia. Infection of chickens with the 2:6 H7N9 containing G1-like H9N2 internal genes conferred attenuation in vivo, with reduced shedding and transmission to contact chickens. However, possession of BJ94-like H9N2 internal genes resulted in more rapid transmission and significantly elevated cloacal shedding compared to the parental Anhui/13 H7N9. In vitro analysis showed that the 2:6 H7N9 with BJ94-like internal genes had significantly increased replication compared to the Anhui/13 H7N9 in chicken cells. In vivo coinfection experiments followed, where chickens were coinfected with pairs of Anhui/13 H7N9 and a 2:6 H7N9 reassortant. During ensuing transmission events, the Anhui/13 H7N9 virus outcompeted 2:6 H7N9 AIVs with internal gene segments of BJ94-like or G1-like H9N2 viruses. Coinfection did lead to the emergence of novel reassortant genotypes that were transmitted to contact chickens. Some of the reassortant viruses had a greater replication in chicken and human cells compared to the progenitors. We demonstrated that the internal gene cassette determines the transmission fitness of H7N9 viruses in chickens, and the reassortment events can generate novel H7N9 genotypes with increased virulence in chickens and enhanced zoonotic potential.

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