The Hemagglutinin Protein of Highly Pathogenic H5N1 Influenza Viruses Overcomes an Early Block in the Replication Cycle To Promote Productive Replication in Macrophages
Macrophages are known to be one of the first lines of defense against influenza virus infection. However, they may also contribute to severe disease caused by the highly pathogenic avian (HPAI) H5N1 influenza viruses. One reason for this may be the ability of certain influenza virus strains to productively replicate in macrophages. However, studies investigating the productive replication of influenza viruses in macrophages have been contradictory, and the results may depend on both the type of macrophages used and the specific viral strain. In this work, we investigated the ability of H1 to H16 viruses to productively replicate in primary murine alveolar macrophages and RAW264.7 macrophages. We show that only a subset of HPAI H5N1 viruses, those that cause high morbidity and mortality in mammals, can productively replicate in macrophages, as measured by the release of newly synthesized virus particles into the cell supernatant. Mechanistically, we found that these H5 strains can overcome a block early in the viral life cycle leading to efficient nuclear entry, viral transcription, translation, and ultimately replication. Studies with reassortant viruses demonstrated that expression of the hemagglutinin gene from an H5N1 virus rescued replication of H1N1 influenza virus in macrophages. This study is the first to characterize H5N1 influenza viruses as the only subtype of influenza virus capable of productive replication in macrophages and establishes the viral gene that is required for this characteristic. The ability to productively replicate in macrophages is unique to H5N1 influenza viruses and may contribute to their increased pathogenesis.