D2I and F9Y Mutations in the NS1 Protein of Influenza A Virus Affect Viral Replication via Regulating Host Innate Immune Responses

Influenza A viruses (IAV) modulate host antiviral responses to promote viral growth and pathogenicity. The non-structural (NS1) protein of influenza A virus has played an indispensable role in the inhibition of host immune responses, especially in limiting interferon (IFN) production. In this study, random site mutations were introduced into the NS1 gene of A/WSN/1933 (WSN, H1N1) via an error prone PCR to construct a random mutant plasmid library. The NS1 random mutant virus library was generated by reverse genetics. To screen out the unidentified NS1 functional mutants, the library viruses were lung-to-lung passaged in mice and individual plaques were picked from the fourth passage in mice lungs. Sanger sequencing revealed that eight different kinds of mutations in the NS1 gene were obtained from the passaged library virus. We found that the NS1 F9Y mutation significantly enhanced viral growth in vitro (MDCK and A549 cells) and in vivo (BALB/c mice) as well as increased virulence in mice. The NS1 D2I mutation attenuated the viral replication and pathogenicity in both in vitro and in vivo models. Further studies demonstrated that the NS1 F9Y mutant virus exhibited systematic and selective inhibition of cytokine responses as well as inhibited the expression of IFN. In addition, the expression levels of innate immunity-related cytokines were significantly up-regulated after the rNS1 D2I virus infected A549 cells. Collectively, our results revealed that the two mutations in the N-terminal of the NS1 protein could alter the viral properties of IAV and provide additional evidence that the NS1 protein is a critical virulence factor. The two characterized NS1 mutations may serve as potential targets for antiviral drugs as well as attenuated vaccine development.