Non-basic amino acids in the hemagglutinin proteolytic cleavage site of a European H9N2 avian influenza virus modulate virulence in turkeys
H9N2 avian influenza virus (AIV) is the most widespread low pathogenic (LP) AIV in poultry and poses a serious zoonotic risk. Vaccination is used extensively to mitigate the economic impact of the virus. However, mutations were acquired after long-term circulation of H9N2 virus in poultry, particularly in the hemagglutinin (HA) proteolytic cleavage site (CS), a main virulence determinant of AIV. Compared to chickens, little is known about the genetic determinants for adaptation of H9N2 AIV to turkeys. Here, we describe 36 different CS motifs in Eurasian H9N2 viruses identified from 1966 to 2019. The European H9N2 viruses specify unique HACS with particular polymorphism by insertion of non-basic amino acids at position 319. Recombinant viruses carrying single HACS mutations resembling field viruses were constructed (designated G319, A319, N319, S319, D319 and K319). Several viruses replicated to significantly higher titers in turkey cells than in chicken cells. Serine proteases were more efficient than trypsin to support multicycle replication in mammalian cells. Mutations affected cell-to-cell spread and pH-dependent HA fusion activity. In contrast to chickens, mutations in the HACS modulated clinical signs in inoculated and co-housed turkeys. G319 exhibited the lowest virulence, however, it replicated to significantly higher titers in contact-turkeys and in vitro. Interestingly, H9N2 viruses, particularly G319, replicated in brain cells of turkeys and to a lesser extent in mammalian brain cells independent of trypsin. Therefore, the silent circulation of potentially zoonotic H9N2 viruses in poultry should be monitored carefully. These results are important for understanding the adaptation of H9N2 in poultry and replication in mammalian cells.