Virology question of the week: why a segmented viral genome?

influenza-reassortmentThis week’s virology question comes from Eric, who writes:

I’m working on an MPH and in one of my classes we are currently studying the influenza virus. I’d forgotten that the genome is in 8 separate parts. Curious, I’ve been searching but can’t find any information as to why that is?

What evolutionary advantage is conferred by having a segmented genome?

Terrific question! Here is my reply:

It’s always hard to have answers to ‘why’ questions such as yours. We answer these questions from a human-centric view of what viruses ‘need’. We might not be right. But I’d guess there are at least two important advantages of having a segmented RNA genome.

Mutation is an important source of RNA virus diversity that is made possible by the error-prone nature of RNA synthesis. Viruses with segmented genome have another mechanism for generating diversity: reassortment (illustrated).

An example of the evolutionary importance of reassortment is the exchange of RNA segments between mammalian and avian influenza viruses that give rise to pandemic influenza. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic strain is a reassortant of avian, human, and swine influenza viruses.

Having a segmented genome is another way to get around the limitation that eukaryotic mRNAs can only encode one protein. Viruses with segmented RNA genomes can produce at least one protein per segment, sometimes more. There are other ways to overcome this limitation – for example by encoding a polyprotein (picornaviruses), or producing subgenomic RNAs (paramyxoviruses).

Other segmented viral genomes include those of reoviruses, arenaviruses, and bunyaviruses.

There are various ways to achieve genetic variation and gene expression, and viruses explore all aspects of this space.

Virology question of the week

HIV binding CD4 and ccrOn the science show This Week in Virology we receive many questions and comments, which are read every week. I also get many questions here on virology blog, which I tend to answer by email. However I think that everyone could benefit from these questions, so I’ve decided to post one here each week along with my answer.

This week’s question is from Joseph, who wrote:

I’m relatively new to virology or anything biology-related. Hell, I’m studying computer science as an undergrad at the moment; however, there’s something about virology that fascinates me – the simplistic fact that we can’t cure viruses, which are less complex than bacterium (in which we can treat, and they’ll eventually pack their bags and leave).

I’ll get to my question … since most, if not all, cells in the body replicate and reproduce and none of them merge, why do our cells let virions in? You would think after years of viral/immune system encounters, our bodies would have adapted to repelling these viruses off. I understand it’s probably much more complicated than that, but I would love to hear your answer. Does it have anything to do with virions’ size being so small?

This is a great question. In fact, I had a similar question on a midterm examination in my virology course. I phrased it this way: Could cells evolve to not have receptors for binding viruses?

I sent this answer to Joseph:

Viruses get into cells by binding to proteins on the cell surface – viruses have evolved to do this: they are safecrackers.

You would think that the cells would evolve to change these proteins – and you would be right. Over thousands of years, the cell proteins change, so the viruses can’t bind anymore.

But guess what? The viruses change right back so that they can bind to the cell protein once more.

Now you might ask: why doesn’t the cell get rid of that surface protein? The answer there is that they are needed for the cell, so they can’t be removed.

There seems to be one exception to the last statement: about 4-16% of people of Northern European descent don’t make one of the receptors for HIV. They are resistant to infection. But this doesn’t happen for most other viruses.

Joseph wrote back:

Hmm. I thought by definition virions weren’t living organisms, yet they “adapt” to bind to living cells. Sounds like those emotional virions just can’t deal with rejection – that and our cells just aren’t as smart as we need them to be. I’m not sure if you are a Trekkie; however, it reminds me of the Borg and The Enterprise’s encounter – The Enterprise adapting to The Borg’s every frequency of their phasers, bypassing their bruteforce.

That does make sense that our cells do need that protein surface for energy; however, I never thought it would actually be the surface itself. Interesting.

I did read about that somewhere – because of the Bubonic Plague causing some genetic mutation, if I’m not mistaken.

To which I responded:

Virus particles are not alive – but once they infect a living cell they can evolve.

Both cells and viruses are smart – they both have managed to be around for a long time. We have great immune systems; virus infected cells can evolve very quickly. It’s an arms race.

Correct, one idea is that the mutation conferring resistance to HIV was acquired in the Plague, but that’s hard to prove.

The mutation we are discussing is of course ccr5delta32, which confers resistance to infection with HIV-1 (the illustration shows the HIV-1 glycoprotein binding CD4 and ccr, a chemokine receptor). You can read more about ccr5delta32 here or listen to us discuss it on TWiV #278. We also talked about virus-receptor arms races on TWiV #242, and I wrote about it here.

TWiV 275: Virocentricity with Eugene Koonin

On episode #275 of the science show This Week in Virology, Vincent and Rich meet up with Eugene Koonin to talk about the central role of viruses in the evolution of all life.

You can find TWiV #275 at

Why do viruses cause disease?

EvolutionVirulence, the capacity to cause disease, varies markedly among viruses. Some viruses cause lethal disease while others do not. For example, nearly all humans infected with rabies virus develop a disease of the central nervous system which ultimately leads to death. In contrast, most humans are infected with circoviruses with no apparent consequence. Is there a benefit for a virus to be virulent?

One explanation for viral virulence is that it facilitates transmission. However, a comparison of infections caused by two enteric viruses, poliovirus and norovirus, does not support this general view. Both viruses infect the gastrointestinal tract and are spread efficiently among humans by fecal contamination. However, norovirus infection causes vomiting and diarrhea, while poliovirus infection of the intestine is without symptoms (the rare invasion of the nervous system, and subsequent paralysis, is an accidental dead end). Both viruses have successfully colonized humans for many years, so why does only one of them cause gastrointestinal tract disease?

Two recent studies of bacterial virulence provide some clues about the evolution of virulence. In one a commensal strain of Escherichia coli was serially propagated in the presence of macrophages, which are cells of the immune system that take up and destroy the bacteria. After many such passages, bacterial clones were isolated that escape phagocytosis and killing by macrophages. These clones had also acquired increased pathogenicity in mice. In other words, the genetic changes that allowed the bacteria to evade the immune response also lead to increased virulence.

In another example of evolution to virulence, it was found the the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa can sense the presence of competing gram-positive bacteria because the latter shed the cell wall component peptidoglycan. In response to this molecule, P. aeruginosa secretes proteins that kill the other bacteria. These secreted proteins also make the bacterium more virulent in a host – in their absence, the bacteria are less virulent. In other words, P. aeruginosa damages its host in an attempt to remove nearby bacterial competitors.

In both bacterial examples, virulence can be viewed as collateral damage: the consequence of evading the immune response, or killing off competitors. Being virulent was not the primary goal. This explanation for bacterial virulence is straightforward and compelling: virulence is not directly selected for during evolution but comes along for the ride. Can it be applied to viruses?

All eukaryotic viruses must encode at least one protein that antagonizes host immune responses, otherwise they would be eliminated. These immune evasion proteins are certainly virulence factors: in general, when they are deleted or altered, the capacity of the virus to cause disease in a host is reduced. Like bacterial virulence, viral virulence might be collateral damage incurred by having to evade immune responses. This hypothesis is attractive but seems overly simplistic. If the ubiquitous and benign circoviruses did not evade host responses, then they would be eliminated from the human population.

The reasons why some viruses are virulent and others are not remain elusive. It is possible to reduce viral virulence by mutation, but this type of experiment does not reveal why viruses cause disease. The inverse experiment would be more informative: to select from a population of avirulent virus those that can cause disease. The results of such an experiment would help to identify the selection pressures that allow viruses to evolve to virulence.

Changing influenza virus neuraminidase into a receptor binding protein

neuraminidaseThe hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) glycoproteins of the influenza virus particle serve distinct functions during infection. The HA binds sialic acid-containing cellular receptors and mediates fusion of the viral and cell membranes, while the NA removes sialic acids from glycoproteins. Apparently this division of labor is not absolute: influenza viruses have been identified with NA molecules that serve as receptor binding proteins.

An influenza virus was created that could not bind sialic acid by introducing multiple mutations into the HA gene. This mutant virus was not expected to be infectious, but nevertheless did propagate to moderate titers in cell culture. A single amino acid change was identified in the NA protein of this virus: G147R, which is just above the active site of the enzyme (illustrated; active site marked with green spheres). Passage of the virus in cell culture produced a virus that multiplied to higher titers; improved growth was caused by a K62E change in the HA stalk. The results of site-directed mutagenesis showed that the G147R change allowed the NA protein to serve the receptor binding function normally provided by HA. It is not clear how the HA change leads to improved growth of the G147 virus.

Although the G147R NA can serve as receptor binding protein, the HA is still required for fusion: abolishing this activity by mutation or by treatment with a fusion-blocking antibody did not allow virus growth.

The influenza NA protein is an enzyme (sialidase) that cleaves sialic acids from cellular and viral proteins. The G147R NA is active as a sialidase, and this activity can be blocked by the antiviral compound oseltamivir, which is an NA inhibitor. Treatment of G147R-containing virus with oseltamivir also blocked virus binding to cells. Virus-like particles that contain G147R NA but not HA can attach to sialic acid-containing red blood cells. This attachment can be reversed by oseltamivir. After binding to red blood cells, these virus-like particles slowly fall off, a consequence of NA cleaving sialic acid receptors. These observations indicate that the G147R NA binds to sialic acids at the active site of the enzyme, and cleaves the same receptor that it binds.

Treatment of cells with a bacterial sialidase that removes a broad range of sialic acids only partially inhibits G147R NA-mediated binding to cells. In contrast, growth of wild type influenza virus is completely blocked by this treatment. Therefore the receptor recognized by G147R NA is not the same as that bound by wild type virus.

Changing the influenza virus NA to a receptor binding protein is not simply a laboratory curiosity: the G147R NA change was found in 31 of 19,528 NA protein sequences in the Influenza Virus Resource. They occur in seasonal H1N1 viruses that circulated before 2009, in the 2009 swine-origin pandemic H1N1 virus, and in avian H5N1 viruses. The presence of this change in phylogenetic clusters of seasonal H1N1 and chicken H5N1 sequences suggests that they are also found in circulating viruses, and are not simply sequence errors or the product of passage in the laboratory.

These observations emphasize the remarkable flexibility of the influenza viral glycoproteins in their ability to switch receptor binding function from HA to NA. They might also have implications for vaccines, whose effectiveness are thought to depend largely on the induction of antibodies that block the function of HA protein. The work underscores the importance of serendipity in science: the HA receptor binding mutant virus was originally produced as a negative control for a different experiment.

TWiV 242: I want my MMTV

On episode #242 of the science show This Week in Virology, the complete TWiV team talks about how two different viruses shape the evolution of an essential housekeeping protein.

You can find TWiV #242 at

Dual virus-receptor duel

transferrin receptorViruses are obligate intracellular parasites: they must enter a cell to reproduce. To gain access to the cell interior, a virus must first bind to one or more specific receptor molecules on the cell surface. Cell receptors for viruses do not exist only to serve viruses: they also have cellular functions. An example is the transferrin receptor, which regulates iron uptake and assists in the entry of viruses from three different families. It might appear that such dual-use proteins cannot evolve to block virus entry because their cellular function would then be compromised. A study of two viruses that bind to the same cell surface receptor protein reveals how a cellular protein can change to prevent infection without affecting its role in the cell.

The virus-cell receptor interaction is one of the many arenas where the evolution of host-virus conflict can be studied. Because the virus-receptor interaction is essential for viral replication, host cells with a mutation in the receptor gene that prevents virus infection survive and eventually dominate the population. A virus could overcome this block with an amino acid change allowing binding to the altered receptor. Mutations that alter the interaction to favor the virus or the host are called ‘positively selected’ mutations. Such back-and-forth evolution between viruses and their host cells has been called host-virus arms races. Most have been identified by studying antiviral genes. This study is unusual in that it involves a housekeeping gene that has been usurped for viral attachment.

Evidence for positive selection of host genes can be detected by comparing gene sequences of phylogenetically related species. Nonsynonymous mutations lead to a change in the amino acid sequence, while synonymous mutations do not. The rate at which nonsynonymous mutations occur in the genome is typically much slower than synonymous mutations. The reason for this difference is that most mutations that change the amino acid sequence of a protein are lethal to the host. When genes have been subjected to positive selection by a virus, the ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous mutations is higher, typically in host amino acids that interact with viral proteins. Computer programs have been designed to scan gene sequences and identify codons which are under positive selection by virtue of a high ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous mutations.

To determine if the transferrin receptor (TfR1) has evolved to prevent virus attachment, sequences of the protein from seven different rodent species were compared. The analysis revealed that much of the protein is highly conserved, but a small part, comprising six amino acids, is evolving rapidly. Three of these amino acids  are located on the part of TfR1 that binds arenaviruses, and three are at the binding site for the retrovirus mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV) (see illustration). Changing these three amino acids of TfR1 of the house mouse, which is susceptible to MMTV, to the sequence found in TfR1 of the MMTV-resistant vesper mouse, blocked entry of the virus into cells. In turn, changing these three amino acids of TfR1 of the MMTV-resistant short-tailed zygodont to the sequence of the house mouse enabled virus entry into cells. None of these changes had an effect on ferritin binding by TfR1.

Evidence for positive selection can also be detected in viral genes encoding proteins that interact with the host. The arenavirus glycoprotein, GP, is known to bind to TfR1. Ten GP amino acids were identified that are under positive selection, and four of these directly contact TfR1.

These findings demonstrate that there has been an arms race between TfR1 and both an arenavirus and retrovirus. An interesting question is whether human TfR1 will enter into an arms race with arenaviruses. As these viruses emerge into the human population, it is expected that humans with mutations that make them less susceptible to infection or severe disease will be positively selected. Amino acid 212 of human TfR1, which is near the positively selected resides in murine TfR1, varies in the human population. When this amino acid change (leucine to valine) is introduced into TfR1, it confers some protection against arenavirus entry. Curiously, this polymorphism has only been found in Asian populations, where arenaviruses that bind TfR1 are not found. The polymorphism is probably neutral with respect to TfR1 function, and if TfR1-binding arenaviruses are introduced into Asia, this change could be positively selected.

Because all viruses depend on many host proteins for replication, it will be interesting to use this approach to see how other highly conserved cell proteins balance cell function with the ability to resist virus infections. There are like to be many cell proteins that cannot change to evade viral use without destroying their cell function. Fortunately for cells there are exceptions.

TWiV 237: Paleovirology with Michael Emerman

Episode #237 of the science show This Week in Virology was recorded at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA, where Vincent and Rich met up with Michael to talk about his work on the molecular and evolutionary basis of HIV replication and pathogenesis.

You can find TWiV #237 at

A single amino acid change switches avian influenza H5N1 and H7N9 viruses to human receptors

HA receptor binding siteTwo back-to-back papers were published last week that provide a detailed analysis of what it would take for avian influenza H5N1 and H7N9 viruses to switch to human receptors.

Influenza virus initiates infection by attaching to the cell surface, a process mediated by binding of the viral hemagglutinin protein (HA) to sialic acid. This sugar is found on glycoproteins, which are polypeptide chains decorated with chains of sugars. The way that sialic acid is linked to the next sugar molecule determines what kind of influenza viruses will bind. Human influenza viruses prefer to attach to sialic acids linked to the second sugar molecule via alpha-2,6 linkages, while avian influenza viruses prefer to bind to alpha-2,3 linked sialic acids. (In the image, influenza HA is shown in blue on the virion (left) and as a single polypeptide at right. Alpha-2,3 linked sialic acid is shown at top).

Adaptation of avian influenza viruses to efficiently infect humans requires that the viral HA quantitatively switches to human receptor binding –  defined as high relative binding affinity to human versus avian receptors. Such a switch is caused by amino acid changes in the receptor binding site of the HA protein. The HA of the H1N1, H2N2, and H3N2 pandemic viruses are all derived from avian influenza viruses that underwent such a quantitative switch in binding from avian to human sialic acid receptors.

Avian H5N1 influenza viruses have not undergone a quantitative switch to human receptor binding, which is one of the reasons why these viruses do not undergo sustained human-to-human transmission. It has been possible to introduce specific amino acid changes in the H5 HA protein that enable these viruses to recognize human sialic acid receptors. Such changes were required to select variants of influenza H5N1 virus that transmit via aerosol among ferrets. However none of these viruses have quantitatively switched to human receptor specificity.

In the H5N1 paper, the authors compared the structure of an H5 HA bound to alpha-2,3 linked sialic acid with the structure of an H2 HA (its closest phylogenetic neighbor) bound to alpha-2,6 linked sialic acid, revealing substantial differences in the receptor binding site. To predict what residues could be changed in the H5 HA to overcome these differences, the authors developed a metric to identify amino acids within the receptor binding site that either contact the receptor or might influence the interaction. They examined these amino acids in different H5 HAs, and identified residues which might change the H5 HA to human receptor specificity. As a starting point they picked two H5 viruses that have already undergone amino acid changes believed to be important for human receptor binding. The changes were introduced into the HA of a currently circulating H5 HA by mutagenesis and then binding of the HAs to purified sialic acids and human tracheal and alveolar tissues was determined.

The HA receptor binding site amino acid changes required for aerosol transmission of H5N1 viruses in ferrets did not quantitatively switch receptor binding of a currently circulating H5 HA from avian to human (the ferret studies were done using H5N1 viruses that circulated in 2004/05). The authors note that “These residues alone cannot be used as reference points to analyze the switch in receptor specificity of currently circulating and evolving H5N1 strains”.

However introducing other amino acid changes which the authors predicted would be important did switch the H5 HA completely to human receptor binding. Only one or two amino acids changes are required for this switch in recently circulating H5 HAs.

This work is important because it defines structural features in the receptor binding site of H5 HA that are critical for quantitative switching from avian to human receptor binding, a necessary step in the acquisition of human to human transmissibility. These specific residues can be monitored in circulating H5N1 strains as indicators of a quantitative switch to human receptor specificity.

Remember that switching of H5 HA to human receptor specificity is not sufficient to gain human to human transmissibility; what other changes are needed, in which genes and how many, is anyone’s guess.

These authors have also published (in the same issue of Cell) a similar analysis of the recent avian influenza H7N9 virus which has emerged in China to infect humans for the first time. They model the binding of sialic acid in the H7 HA receptor binding site, and predict that the HA would have lower binding to human receptors compared with human-adapted H3 HAs (its closest phylogenetic neighbor). This prediction was validated by studies of the binding of the H7N9 virus to sections of human trachea: they find that staining of these tissues is less intense and extensive than of viruses with human-adapted HAs. They predict and demonstrate that a single amino acid change in the H7 HA (G228S) increases binding to human sialic acid receptors. This virus stains tracheal sections better than the H7 parental virus.

These results mean that the H7N9 virus circulating in China might be one amino acid change away from acquiring higher binding to human alpha-2,6 sialic acid receptors. I wonder why a virus with this mutation has not yet been isolated. Perhaps the one amino acid change in the viral HA exerts a fitness cost that prevents it from infecting birds or humans. Of course, as discussed above, a switch in receptor specificity is likely not sufficient for human to human transmission; changes in other genes are certainly needed. In other words, the failure of influenza H7N9 virus to transmit among humans can be partly, but not completely, explained by its binding properties to human receptors.

TWiV 234: Live in Denver

Episode #234 of the science show This Week in Virology was recorded before an audience at the 2013 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Denver, Colorado. Vincent and Kathy spoke with Nels Elde and Tom Shenk about their work on the evolution of virus-host conflict and how viruses influence the cell metabolome.

You can find TWiV #234 at