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Hemagglutinin glycosylation pattern-specific effects: implications for the fitness of H9.4.2.5-branched H9N2 avian influenza viruses.

Since 2007, h9.4.2.5 has emerged as the most predominant branch of H9N2 avian influenza viruses (AIVs) that affects the majority of the global poultry population. The spread of this viral branch in vaccinated chicken flocks has not been considerably curbed despite numerous efforts. The evolutionary fitness of h9.4.2.5-branched AIVs must consequently be taken into consideration. The glycosylation modifications of hemagglutinin (HA) play a pivotal role in regulating the balance between receptor affinity and immune evasion for influenza viruses. Sequence alignment showed that five major HA glycosylation patterns have evolved over time in h9.4.2.5-branched AIVs. Here, we compared the adaptive phenotypes of five virus mutants with different HA glycosylation patterns. According to the results, the mutant with 6 N-linked glycans displayed the best acid and thermal stability and a better capacity for multiplication, although having a relatively lower receptor affinity than 7 glycans. The antigenic profile between the five mutants revealed a distinct antigenic distance, indicating that variations in glycosylation level have an impact on antigenic drift. These findings suggest that changes in the number of glycans on HA can not only modulate the receptor affinity and antigenicity of H9N2 AIVs, but also affect their stability and multiplication. These adaptive phenotypes may underlie the biological basis for the dominant strain switchover of h9.4.2.5-branched AIVs. Overall, our study provides a systematic insight into how changes in HA glycosylation patterns regulate the evolutionary fitness and epidemiological dominance drift of h9.4.2.5-branched H9N2 AIVs, which will be of great benefit for the glycosylation-dependent vaccine design.

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