Molecular evolution of influenza viruses
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There are two different mechanisms by which influenza viruses might evolve: (1) Because the RNA genome of influenza viruses is segmented, new strains can suddenly be produced by reassortment, as happens, for example, during antigenic shift, creating new pandemic strains. (2) New viruses evolve relatively slowly by stepwise mutation and selection, for example, during antigenic or genetic drift. Influenza A viruses were found in various vertebrate species, where they form reservoirs that do not easily mix. While human influenza A viruses do not spread in birds and vice versa, the species barrier to pigs is relatively low, so that pigs might function as “mixing vessels” for the creation of new pandemic reassortants in Southeast Asia, where the probability is greatest for double infection of pigs by human and avian influenza viruses. Phylogenetic studies revealed that about 100 years ago, an avian influenza A virus had crossed the species barrier, presumably first to pigs, and from there to humans, forming the new stable human and classical swine lineages. In 1979, again, an avian virus showed up in the North European swine population, forming another stable swine lineage. The North European swine isolates from 1979 until about 1985 were genetically extremely unstable. A hypothesis is put forward stating that a mutator mutation is necessary to enable influenza virus to cross the species barrier by providing the new host with sufficient variants from which it can select the best fitting ones. As long as the mutator mutation is still present, such a virus should be able to cross the species barrier a second time, as happened about 100 years ago. Although the most recent swine isolates from northern Germany are again genetically stable, we nevertheless should be on the lookout to see if a North European swine virus shows up in the human population in the near future.
Key wordsinfluenza virus evolution phylogeny species barrier
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