The pathogenicity of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) viruses is dependent on multiple factors, but the sequence at the HA cleavage site plays the most important role. To better understand the mechanism of virulence of HPAI virus, an avirulent H5 avian influenza virus, A/teal/Tottori/150/02 (H5N3, teal/150), was passaged in respiratory organs of chickens to generate a virus with a highly pathogenic phenotype. After 12 consecutive passages, the virus (strain 12a) became highly pathogenic, with a 100 % mortality rate in chickens. Sequence analysis of the highly pathogenic variant revealed an amino acid change from aspartic acid (Asp) to asparagine (Asn) at position 44 of matrix protein 2 (M2). To investigate the role of M2 in the pathogenicity of HPAI virus, we generated reassortant viruses possessing a polybasic HA cleavage site and either Asp or Asn at position 44 of M2 using the highly pathogenic strain 12a and the avirulent strain 7a, which has Asp at position 44 of M2 derived from isolate teal/150, and we compared their pathogenicity in chickens. Experimental infections demonstrated that the pathogenicity of viruses possessing Asp in M2 was dramatically decreased, and the mortality rate of inoculated chickens was 0 %, in contrast to viruses with Asn, which showed 70 to 100 % mortality. Our findings indicate that M2 protein of the avirulent H5 avian influenza virus is important for acquiring high virulence and that Asn at position 44 of M2, in addition to the polybasic HA cleavage site, is crucial for high pathogenicity in chickens.
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