It’s not easy to make the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus a killer

influenza-rna-2The second RNA segment of some influenza virus strains encodes a protein called PB1-F2 that might contribute to virulence. Speaking about the 2009 pandemic H1N1 strain, Peter Palese noted that “If this virulence marker is necessary for an influenza virus to become highly pathogenic in humans or in chickens, then the current swine virus doesn’t have what it takes to become a major killer.” If the pandemic virus mutated so that the PB1-F2 protein is produced, would it become a killer?

The PB1-F2 protein is not produced in cells infected with the 2009 H1N1 strain because there are three translation stop codons at nucleotide positions 12, 58, and 88.  To determine if this protein plays a role in virulence, the second RNA segment of the A/California/04/2009 H1N1 strain was genetically altered to code for a full-length PB1-F2 protein. When mice or ferrets were infected intranasally with the modified virus, no significant differences in symptoms of infection were observed compared with mice infected with Cal/09 virus. The parameters measured included weight loss, viral replication in the lungs, and lung pathology.

The PB1-F2 protein has been shown to increase the severity of primary viral and secondary bacterial infections in mice. However, no increased mortality was observed in mice co-infected with Streptococcus pneumoniae and Cal/09 virus that can produce PB1-F2 protein.

Some differences were observed that might be attributed to the production of PB1-F2 protein. Synthesis of this protein was associated with enhanced replication in a human respiratory cell line. Furthermore, mice infected with the modified virus produced higher levels of some pro-inflammatory cytokines than mice infected with Cal/09 virus. The significance of these observations is unclear. Higher levels of virus production can influence transmission of infection among hosts, but the effect of PB1-F2 on this property was not examined. While increased proinflammatory cytokines could exacerbate or ameliorate disease, there was no effect on pathogenesis in mice.

The authors conclude that “mutations enabling the production of PB1-F2 in the Cal/09 influenza virus do not have a significant impact on virus virulence in mice or in ferrets.” Whether similar results would be observed in humans is unknown. But not all PB1-F2 proteins are the same: that produced by the genetically altered Cal/09 virus is different from the protein made by the 1918 H1N1 virus. It would be interesting to determine if the nature of the PB1-F2 protein has any effect on the virulence of the 2009 pandemic virus.

Hai, R., Schmolke, M., Varga, Z., Manicassamy, B., Wang, T., Belser, J., Pearce, M., Garcia-Sastre, A., Tumpey, T., & Palese, P. (2010). PB1-F2 expression by the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus has minimal impact on virulence in animal models Journal of Virology DOI: 10.1128/JVI.02717-09

Influenza PB1-F2 protein and viral fitness

influenza-rna-2The second RNA segment of the influenza virus genome encodes the PB1 protein – part of the viral RNA polymerase – and, in some strains, a second protein called PB1-F2. The latter protein is believed to be an important determinant of influenza virus virulence. The absence of a full-length PB1-F2 protein has been suggested as one possible determinant for the low pathogenicity of the 2009 influenza H1N1 pandemic strain. Analysis of the evolutionary history of PB1-F2 suggests that it does not contribute significantly to viral fitness – the ability of the virus to replicate.

PB1-F2 binds to mitochondria, leading to a release of cytochrome c and induction of apoptosis in CD8 T-cells and alveolar macrophages. The protein increases the severity of primary viral and secondary bacterial infections in mice, and is associated with the high pathogenicity of avian H5N1 and the 1918 H1N1 pandemic virus.

The PB1-F2 protein is not produced in cells infected with the 2009 H1N1 strain because there are three stop codons at nucleotide positions 12, 58, and 88.  The PB1 segment of the 2009 H1N1 strain is related to PB1 of H1N2 and H3N2 swine viruses from 1998 and human H3N2 viruses. Curiously, all the relatives of the 2009 H1N1 strain in swine and in humans encode a complete PB1-F2 protein. A truncated PB1-F2 is encoded by the genome of classical swine H1N1 viruses and human H1N1 viruses since 1947. But 96% of the avian influenza virus sequences deposited in NCBI as of 2007 encode the full length version of the protein.

Because the full-length PB1-F2 protein is not encoded in the genome of many influenza viruses, its evolutionary role and contribution to the fitness of the virus is unclear. To answer these questions, the evolution of PB1-F2 was compared with PB1 and two other open reading frames of similar size within the same RNA segment that are not translated into protein.

PB1-F2 is complete in all H1N1 human isolates before 1947, when a stop codon appeared which leads to production of a shorter version of the protein – 57 amino acids. If the complete protein conferred a functional advantage to the virus, a change in the evolutionary rates of the human H1N1 PB1-F2 proteins should have occurred in 1947. No such change is observed.

Results of sequence analysis reveal that the PB1-F2 open reading frame is as conserved, and maintained as a full-length protein, as other non-coding regions of the same RNA segment and of a randomly generated PB1 segment. These observations, and the fact that PB1-F2 is truncated in many virus isolates, suggest that the evolutionary role of PB1-F2 in animal hosts is minimal. Why the full length protein is produced by some viruses – and unfortunately leads to higher virulence – remains a puzzle.

Trifonov, V., Racaniello, V., & Rabadan, R. (2009). The Contribution of the PB1-F2 Protein to the Fitness of Influenza A Viruses and its Recent Evolution in the 2009 Influenza A (H1N1) Pandemic Virus PLoS Currents: Influenza

Influenza A/Mexico/2009 (H1N1): Absence of crucial virulence marker

influenza-rna-2The second RNA segment of the influenza virus genome encodes two proteins, PB1 and PB1-F2.  The latter protein is believed to be an important determinant of virulence of influenza virus. Can we learn anything about the virulence of the new influenza virus H1N1 strains from a study of this protein?

During influenza virus infection, PB1-F2 is targeted to the mitochondria, where it induces a form of cell death known as apoptosis. Experiments in a mouse model of influenza virus infection have shown that PB1-F2 regulates lethality of the virus. By comparing the infection of mice with two strains of influenza virus, one of which produces much lower levels of the PB1-F2 protein, it was found that the protein enhances inflammation and increases frequency and severity of secondary bacterial pneumonia. A specific amino acid at position 66 of this protein appears to be an important determinant of viral virulence. This amino acid is a serine in the 1918 H1N1 influenza virus, in a 1997 avian H5N1 isolate from the Hong Kong outbreak, and in the H2N2 (1957) and H3N2 (1968) pandemic strains. Other less pathogenic influenza virus isolates have an asparagine at this position. Two viruses were constructed which differ at amino acid 66 of the PB1-F2 protein, and the virulence of these viruses was determined in mice. The influenza virus with a serine at amino acid 66 was pathogenic in mice, while the virus with an asparagine was significantly less virulent. Increased pathogenicity of the virulent virus was associated with higher levels of virus replication in the lungs. The results of these studies show that the PB1-F2 protein affects pathogenicity in a mouse model, and that position 66 plays an important role.


Truncated PB1-F2

Because the amino acid change N66S of PB1-F2 is present in the three previous pandemic influenza virus strains – 1918 H1N1, 1957 H2N2, and 1968 H3N2 – it would be of interest to determine which amino acid, N or S, is present in the new H1N1 influenza virus strain that is spreading globally. However, examination of the nucleotide sequence of RNA from the current H1N1 isolates shows that these viruses do not even produce a PB1-F2 protein – a stop codon is present after amino acid 11 (see figure). In fact, many other influenza virus strains do not produce the protein. While the PB1-F2 protein is not the only determinant of influenza virus virulence, we can at least eliminate any contribution of this viral protein to increased lethality. As Peter Palese has written in today’s Wall Street Journal, “If this virulence marker is necessary for an influenza virus to become highly pathogenic in humans or in chickens, then the current swine virus doesn’t have what it takes to become a major killer.”

Conenello, G., Zamarin, D., Perrone, L., Tumpey, T., & Palese, P. (2007). A Single Mutation in the PB1-F2 of H5N1 (HK/97) and 1918 Influenza A Viruses Contributes to Increased Virulence PLoS Pathogens, 3 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.0030141

MCAULEY, J., HORNUNG, F., BOYD, K., SMITH, A., MCKEON, R., BENNINK, J., YEWDELL, J., & MCCULLERS, J. (2007). Expression of the 1918 Influenza A Virus PB1-F2 Enhances the Pathogenesis of Viral and Secondary Bacterial Pneumonia Cell Host & Microbe, 2 (4), 240-249 DOI: 10.1016/j.chom.2007.09.001

Influenza virus RNA: Translation into protein


figure 1

Let’s resume our discussion of the influenza virus genome. Last time we established that there are eight negative-stranded RNAs within the influenza virion, each coding for one or two proteins. Now we’ll consider how proteins are made from these RNAs.

Figure 1 shows influenza RNA segment 2, which encodes two proteins: PB1 and PB1-F2. The (-) strand viral RNA is copied to form a (+) strand mRNA, which in turn is used as a template for protein synthesis. Figure 2 (below) shows the nucleotide sequence of the first 180 bases of this mRNA.

The top line, mostly in small letters, is the nucleotide sequence of the viral mRNA. During translation this sequence is read in triplets, each of which specifies an amino acid (the one-letter code for amino acids is used here). Translation usually begins with an ATG which specifies the amino acid methionine; the next triplet, gat, specifies aspartic acid, and so on. Only the first 60 amino acids of the PB1 protein are shown; the protein contains a total of 758 amino acids.

Most of the influenza viral RNAs code for only one protein. However, RNA 2 (and two other RNAs) code for two proteins. In the case of RNA 2, the second protein is made by translation of what is known as an overlapping reading frame.

On the second line of the RNA sequence in figure 2 is an atg highlighted in red. You can see that this atg is not in the reading frame of the PB1 protein. However, it is the start codon for the second protein encoded in RNA 2, the PB1-F2 protein (F2 stands for frame 2, because the protein is translated from the second open reading frame). Figure 3 shows how PB1-F2 is translated. The sequence of the viral RNA is shown from the beginning, except that reading frame 1, which begins at the first ATG, is not translated. Rather, we have begun translation with the internal atg, which is in the second reading frame. This open reading frame encodes the PB1-F2 protein which, in this case, is 90 amino acids in length (its length varies in different isolates). The protein is much shorter than PB1 because translation stops at a termination codon (tga) long before the end of the RNA. Because PB1-F2 is encoded in reading frame 2, its amino acid sequence is completely different from that of PB1.

figure 2

figure 2

figure 3

figure 3

The sequences used for this example are from the 1918 H1N1 strain of influenza. Notice the amino acid of PB1-F2 which is highlighted in blue. This amino acid has an important role in the biological function of the protein, which we will consider in a future post.

My apologies if the figures and text are not optimally aligned. A blog post is not the optimal format for such information, but in the interest of time I have not explored other options. Suggestions for improvement are welcome.

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