The first avian H7N9 influenza outbreak in spring of 2013 emerged in an unprecedented transmission from infected poultry to humans in the Yangtze delta area, eastern China, posing a dual challenge to public health and poultry industry. However, the mechanism for how avian H7N9 influenza virus adapts to mammalian hosts has not been clearly understood. Here, to identify adaptive changes that confer enhanced virulence of H7N9 virus in mammals, we generated a mouse-adapted H7N9 variant virus (S8) by serial lung-to-lung passages of the wild-type SDL124 virus in mice and compared their phenotype in vivo and in vitro. Sequence analysis showed that the two viruses differed by 27 amino acids distributed among six genes, containing changes in PB2 (E627K, D701N) and HA (Q226L) genes. The 50% mouse lethal dose (MLD) of S8 reduced about 500 folds, to be moderately pathogenic to mice when compared to that of low pathogenic wild-type SDL124. Moreover, S8 replicated efficiently in mouse lungs and displayed expanded tissue tropism, and induced a greater degree of pulmonary edema and higher level of inflammatory cell infiltration in bronchoalveolar lavage fluids than SDL124 did. Interestingly, the mouse adapted S8 virus obtained strong affinity for human-like (SAα-2,6 Gal) receptor during the adaptation in mice. Correspondingly, compared with SDL124 virus, S8 virus showed higher replication efficiency in mammalian cells, whereas lower replication ability in avian cells. Taken together, these findings suggest that these mutations synergistically elevate the ability of H7N9 virus to disseminate to multiple organs and subsequently enhance the virulence of H7N9 virus in mammalian hosts.
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