The hallmark attribute of North American West Nile virus (WNV) strains has been high pathogenicity in certain bird species. Surprisingly, this avian virulent WNV phenotype has not been observed during its geographical expansion into the Caribbean, Central America and South America. One WNV variant (TM171-03-pp1) isolated in Mexico has demonstrated an attenuated phenotype in two widely distributed North American bird species, American crows (AMCRs) and house sparrows (HOSPs). In order to identify genetic determinants associated with attenuated avian replication of the TM171-03-pp1 variant, chimeric viruses between the NY99 and Mexican strains were generated, and their replicative capacity was assessed in cell culture and in AMCR, HOSP and house finch avian hosts. The results demonstrated that mutations in both the pre-membrane (prM-I141T) and envelope (E-S156P) genes mediated the attenuation phenotype of the WNV TM171-03-pp1 variant in a chicken macrophage cell line and in all three avian species assayed. Inclusion of the prM-I141T and E-S156P TM171-03-pp1 mutations in the NY99 backbone was necessary to achieve the avian attenuation level of the Mexican virus. Furthermore, reciprocal incorporation of both prM-T141I and E-P156S substitutions into the Mexican virus genome was necessary to generate a virus that exhibited avian virulence equivalent to the NY99 virus. These structural changes may indicate the presence of new evolutionary pressures exerted on WNV populations circulating in Latin America or may signify a genetic bottleneck that has constrained their epiornitic potential in alternative geographical locations.
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