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Influenza: A case study
Influenza: A case study

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2.3.1 Creation of new viral strains

Part of the success of influenza as a pathogen is because segmented genome improves the virus’s potential to evolve into new strains through the combination of different RNA stands. This mixing of the genetic material from different viral strains to produce a new strain is termed genetic reassortment.

For instance, the virus that caused the 2009 H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic comprises a quadruple reassortment of RNA strands from two swine virus, one avian virus, and one human influenza virus:

  • the surface HA and NA proteins derive from two different swine influenzas (H1 from a North American swine influenza and N1 from a European swine influenza)
  • the three components of the RNA polymerase derive from avian and human influenzas (PA and PB2 from the avian source, PB1 from the human 1993 H3N2 strain)
  • the remaining internal proteins derive from the two swine influenzas (MacKenzie, 2009).

This does not necessarily mean that all four viruses infected the same animal at once. The new strain was likely the result of a reassortment of two swine influenza viruses, one from North America and one from Europe. The North American virus may itself have been the product of previous reassortments, containing a human PB1 gene since 1993 and an avian PA and PB2 genes since 2001. The presence of avian influenza RNA polymerase genes in this virus was especially worrying, since the avian polymerase is thought to be more efficient than human or swine versions, allowing the virus to replicate faster and thus making it more virulent. Similar avian RNA polymerase genes are what make H5N1 bird flu extremely virulent in mammals and what made the 1918 human pandemic virus so lethal in people.

This mixing of genes from two or more viruses (whether from the same host species or from different species) can cause major changes in the antigenic surface proteins of a virus, such that it is no longer recognised by the host’s immune system. This antigenic shift is described in more detail in Section 3 (specifically, Box 2).

In contrast to the major genetic changes caused by reassortment, influenza viruses also undergo constant, gradual, genetic changes due to errors made by their RNA polymerases.