Cooperating H3N2 influenza virus variants are not detectable in primary clinical samples
The high mutation rates of RNA viruses lead to rapid genetic diversification, which can enable cooperative interactions between variants in a viral population. We previously described two distinct variants of H3N2 influenza virus that cooperate in cell culture. These variants differ by a single mutation, D151G, in the neuraminidase protein. The D151G mutation reaches a stable frequency of about 50% when virus is passaged in cell culture. However, it is unclear whether selection for the cooperative benefits of D151G is a cell-culture phenomenon, or whether the mutation is also sometimes present at appreciable frequency in virus populations sampled directly from infected humans. Prior work has not detected D151G in unpassaged clinical samples, but these studies have used methods like Sanger sequencing and pyrosequencing that are relatively insensitive to low-frequency variation. We identified nine samples of human H3N2 influenza collected between 2013 to 2015 in which Sanger sequencing had detected a high frequency of the D151G mutation following one to three passages in cell culture. We deep-sequenced the unpassaged clinical samples to identify low-frequency viral variants. The frequency of D151G did not exceed the frequency of library preparation and sequencing errors in any of the sequenced samples. We conclude that passage in cell culture is primarily responsible for the frequent observations of D151G in recent H3N2 influenza strains.
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