An R195K mutation in the PA-X protein increases the virulence and transmission of influenza A virus in mammalian hosts

In the 21(st) century, the emergence of H7N9 and H1N1/2009 influenza viruses originating from animals and causing severe human infections has prompted investigations into the genetic alterations required for cross-species transmission. We previously found that substitution of the human-origin PA gene segment in avian influenza virus (AIV) could overcome barriers to cross-species transmission. Recently, it was reported that the PA gene segment encodes both the PA protein and a second protein, PA-X. Herein, we investigated the role of PA-X. We found that an H9N2 avian influenza reassortant virus bearing a human-origin H1N1/2009 PA gene was attenuated in mice after the loss of PA-X. Reverse genetics analyses of PA-X substitutions conserved in human influenza viruses indicated that R195K, K206R and P210L substitutions conferred significantly increased replication and pathogenicity on H9N2 virus in mice and ferrets. PA-X R195K was present in all human H7N9 and H1N1/2009 viruses, and predominated in human H5N6 viruses. Compared with PA-X 195R, H7N9 influenza viruses bearing PA-X 195K showed increased replication and transmission in ferrets. We further showed that PA-X 195K enhanced lung inflammatory responses, potentially due to decreased host shutoff function. A competitive transmission study in ferrets indicated that 195K provides a replicative advantage over 195R in H1N1/2009 viruses. By contrast, PA-X 195K did not influence the virulence of H9N2 AIV in chickens, suggesting that the effects of this substitution were mammal-specific. Therefore, future surveillance efforts should scrutinize this region of PA-X because of its potential impact on cross-species transmission of influenza viruses.ImportanceFour influenza pandemics in humans [the Spanish flu of 1918 (H1N1), the Asian flu of 1957 (H2N2), the Hong Kong flu of 1968 (H3N2), and the swine-origin flu of 2009 (H1N1)] are all proposed to have been caused by avian or swine influenza viruses, which acquired virulence factors through adaptive mutation or reassortment with circulating human viruses. Currently, influenza viruses circulating in animals are repeatedly transmitted to humans, posing a significant threat to public health. However, the molecular properties accounting for interspecies transmission of influenza viruses remain unclear. In the present study, we demonstrated that PA-X plays an important role in cross-species transmission of influenza viruses. At least three human-specific amino acid substitutions in PA-X dramatically enhanced the adaptation of animal influenza viruses in mammals. In particular, PA-X 195K might have contributed to cross-species transmission of H7N9, H5N6, and H1N1/2009 viruses from animal reservoirs to humans.

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