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J Virol. 1994 May;68(5):3120-8.

Reverse genetics provides direct evidence for a correlation of hemagglutinin cleavability and virulence of an avian influenza A virus.

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Department of Virology and Molecular Biology, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee 38101.


To obtain direct evidence for a relationship between hemagglutinin (HA) cleavability and the virulence of avian influenza A viruses, we generated a series of HA cleavage mutants from a virulent virus, A/turkey/Ontario/7732/66 (H5N9), by reverse genetics. A transfectant virus containing the wild-type HA with R-R-R-K-K-R at the cleavage site, which was readily cleaved by endogenous proteases in chicken embryo fibroblasts (CEF), was highly virulent in intramuscularly or intranasally/orally inoculated chickens. By contrast, a mutant containing the HA with an avirulent-like sequence (R-E-T-R) at the cleavage site, which was not cleaved by the proteases in CEF, was avirulent in chickens, indicating that a genetic alteration confined to the HA cleavage site can affect cleavability and virulence. Mutant viruses with HA cleavage site sequences of T-R-R-K-K-R or T-T-R-K-K-R were as virulent as viruses with the wild-type HA, whereas a mutant with a two-amino-acid deletion but retention of four consecutive basic residues (R-K-K-R) was as avirulent as a virus with the avirulent-type HA. Interestingly, although a mutant containing an HA with R-R-R-K-T-R, which has reduced cleavability in CEF, was as virulent as viruses with high HA cleavability when given intramuscularly, it was less virulent when given intranasally/orally. We conclude that the degree of HA cleavability in CEF predicts the virulence of avian influenza viruses.

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