Kong H, Fan S, Takada K, Imai M, Neumann G, Kawaok. H3N2 Influenza Viruses with 12- or 16-Amino Acid Deletions in the Receptor-Binding Region of Their Hemagglutinin Protein. mBio. 2021 Dec 7:e0151221
Human influenza viruses evade host immune responses by accumulating mutations around the receptor-binding region of the hemagglutinin (HA) protein, which is composed of three key elements, the 130-loop, the 190-helix, and the 220-loop. Here, we characterized two human H3N2 influenza viruses with 12- and 16-amino acid deletions around the HA receptor-binding site that were isolated after antigenic selection of mutated H3N2 viruses. Structural modeling suggested that the 12-amino acid deletion eliminated the 190-helix. The 16-amino acid deletion comprises two stretches of 11- and 5-amino acid deletions. As the result of a frameshift, "novel" amino acids (not found in wild-type HA at these positions) are encoded between the deleted regions. Interestingly, structural modeling predicted that the novel sequence forms a structure resembling the 190-helix. However, compared to wild-type HA, the 16-amino acid deletion mutant lacks two antiparallel beta-sheets that connect the 190-helix and the 220-loop in wild-type HA. Nonetheless, both HA deletion mutants replicated in mammalian cells, and the 16-amino acid deletion mutant (with a remodeled 190-helix) also replicated in Syrian hamsters, albeit at low titers. Wild-type virus bound preferentially to α2,6-linked sialic acids, whereas both mutants gained affinity for α2,3-linked sialic acids. Moreover, the 12- and 16-amino acid deletions may affect the antigenic properties of the viruses. Thus, viruses with sizeable deletions around the HA receptor-binding site are viable but may display altered sialic acid preferences, altered antigenic properties, and attenuated replicative ability in cultured cells and virulence in Syrian hamsters. IMPORTANCE The hemagglutinin (HA) protein of influenza viruses serves as the receptor-binding protein and is the principal target of the host immune system. The antigenic epitopes in the receptor-binding region are known to tolerate mutations, but here, we show that even deletions of 12 or 16 amino acids in this region can be accommodated. In cultured cells, 12- and 16-amino acid deletion mutants were attenuated, and the 16-amino acid deletion mutant replicated in Syrian hamsters. Compared with wild-type virus, both mutants showed changes in their reactivity to some of the sera tested and changes in their binding affinity to sialic acids, which serve as influenza virus receptors. Collectively, our findings highlight the plasticity of HA.
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