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PLoS One. 2013 Nov 25;8(11):e81027. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0081027. eCollection 2013.

Extreme evolutionary conservation of functionally important regions in H1N1 influenza proteome.

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Department of Computer Science, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, United States of America.


The H1N1 subtype of influenza A virus has caused two of the four documented pandemics and is responsible for seasonal epidemic outbreaks, presenting a continuous threat to public health. Co-circulating antigenically divergent influenza strains significantly complicates vaccine development and use. Here, by combining evolutionary, structural, functional, and population information about the H1N1 proteome, we seek to answer two questions: (1) do residues on the protein surfaces evolve faster than the protein core residues consistently across all proteins that constitute the influenza proteome? and (2) in spite of the rapid evolution of surface residues in influenza proteins, are there any protein regions on the protein surface that do not evolve? To answer these questions, we first built phylogenetically-aware models of the patterns of surface and interior substitutions. Employing these models, we found a single coherent pattern of faster evolution on the protein surfaces that characterizes all influenza proteins. The pattern is consistent with the events of inter-species reassortment, the worldwide introduction of the flu vaccine in the early 80's, as well as the differences caused by the geographic origins of the virus. Next, we developed an automated computational pipeline to comprehensively detect regions of the protein surface residues that were 100% conserved over multiple years and in multiple host species. We identified conserved regions on the surface of 10 influenza proteins spread across all avian, swine, and human strains; with the exception of a small group of isolated strains that affected the conservation of three proteins. Surprisingly, these regions were also unaffected by genetic variation in the pandemic 2009 H1N1 viral population data obtained from deep sequencing experiments. Finally, the conserved regions were intrinsically related to the intra-viral macromolecular interaction interfaces. Our study may provide further insights towards the identification of novel protein targets for influenza antivirals.

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