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J Virol. 2013 Dec;87(24):13343-53. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02004-13. Epub 2013 Oct 2.

Spherical influenza viruses have a fitness advantage in embryonated eggs, while filament-producing strains are selected in vivo.

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Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.


Influenza viruses can take on two distinct morphologies: filamentous or spherical. While the functional significance of each virion type is unclear, filaments are generally observed in low-passage-number isolates, while an exclusively spherical morphology is seen in strains grown extensively in laboratory substrates. Previous studies have shown that filamentous morphology is lost upon passage in eggs. The fact that the filamentous morphology is maintained in nature but not in the laboratory suggests that filaments provide an advantage in the host that is not necessary for growth in laboratory substrates. To test this hypothesis and identify naturally occurring mutations that alter morphology, we examined the effect of serial adaptation in eggs, MDCK cells, and guinea pigs. Two filamentous strains, A/Netherlands/602/2009 (H1N1) and A/Georgia/M5081/2012 (H1N1), were passaged in eggs and MDCK cells. Conversely, the spherical laboratory strain A/Puerto Rico/8/1934 (H1N1) was passaged in guinea pigs. We found that although passage in eggs and MDCK cells can lead to a loss of filaments, an exclusively spherical morphology is not required for highly efficient growth in either substrate. We did, however, identify two point mutations in the matrix of egg passage 10 isolates that confer spherical morphology and increased growth in eggs. In contrast, serial passage in guinea pigs resulted in the selection of filament-forming variants. Sequencing revealed point mutations to the PR8 matrix that, when introduced individually, yielded filaments. These findings suggest a functional role for filaments in the infected host and expand the breadth of mutations known to affect influenza virus shape.

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