Since the first triple-reassortant H3N2 SIV was isolated from US swine populations in 1998, all triple-reassortant SIVs including H1N1, H1N2 and H3N2 subtypes circulating in North American swine herds have contained a similar TRIG cassette (Vincent et al., 2008
). In this reassortment and transmission study, four different subtypes of influenza virus (H3N2, H1N2, H3N1 and H1N1) with different genetic combinations were found in the lungs of pigs co-infected with the triple-reassortant H3N2 Tx/98 and cH1N1 rgIA/30 viruses, providing further evidence that pigs can be a ‘mixing vessel’ for different subtypes of influenza viruses. In the reassortant viruses from lungs of co-infected pigs, most of the internal genes (PB1, PB2, PA, NP and NS) were from the triple-reassortant Tx/98 virus whilst the surface genes (HA and NA) were from the cH1N1 rgIA/30 virus; the M genes were derived almost equally from both initial viruses. Most viruses isolated from the lungs of co-infected pigs had the cH1N1 surface proteins with the original TRIG cassette, confirming that this original TRIG cassette can accept and support different combinations of HA and NA genes, as in the field. Noticeably, some viruses from the lungs of co-infected pigs also contained the modified TRIG cassette with the IA/30 M gene, suggesting that the modified TRIG cassette is also able to accept different HA and NA types. The appearance of the human 2009 pandemic swine-origin H1N1 virus further confirmed this point, as this virus also contains a modified TRIG cassette with the M gene from the Eurasian SIV (Garten et al., 2009
). The significance of the TRIG cassette for virus replication and transmission as well as adaptation between human and swine hosts needs to be investigated in future studies.
The polymerase subunits PB2, PB1 and PA are central to the replication cycle of influenza virus and are required for viral RNA replication and transcription. Viral-like reporter replication (the functional ribonucleoproteins constituted by co-transfecting an expressing viral-like reporter RNA plasmid with four plasmids expressing PB1, PB2, PA and NP into COS-1 cells) was more efficient when PB2 and NP were both derived from the same avian or human virus or when PB1 was derived from an avian virus (Naffakh et al., 2000
). However, current circulating SIVs in North America contain the avian PA and PB2, the human PB1 and the swine NP genes, similar to the pandemic H1N1 virus, and the role of the novel polymerase complex in current SIVs is still not completely understood. In this study, two double-reassortant (human/swine) H1N1 and H3N1 viruses without the avian PA and PB2 polymerase genes were isolated from the lungs of co-infected pigs. However, these viruses were not successfully transmitted from co-infected pigs to contact animals. This result coincides with the finding that the double-reassortant H3N2 virus was initially isolated in one US herd, carrying an HA gene with identical residues in critical receptor-binding regions similar to subsequently isolated triple-reassortant H3N2 viruses, and was subsequently displaced by the triple-reassortant H3N2 SIVs (Vincent et al., 2008
; Webby et al., 2004
). Currently, the triple-reassortant H3N2 viruses are endemic in US swine herds. This suggests that the introduction of avian PA and PB2 genes is one of the critical factors for the triple-reassortant SIVs becoming well established in pigs (Webby et al., 2000
). In this study, more than 70
% of isolates from the lungs of co-infected pigs contained this novel polymerase complex (avian PA and PB2 and human PB1 genes). This novel polymerase complex is also found in currently circulating triple-reassortant SIVs, indicating its importance in virus replication and adaptation; this might explain why the triple-reassortant virus containing the novel polymerase complex successfully spread in the pig population. Previous studies have shown that the current swine viruses in North America appear to have an increased rate of antigenic drift and reassortment and have the ability to evade established herd immunity (Richt et al., 2003
; Vincent et al., 2006
) due to acquisition of the avian PA and PB2 genes and the human PB1 gene. The exact role of each novel polymerase gene remains unknown and needs to be investigated.
The cH1N1 IA/30 virus generated by reverse genetics (Weingartl et al., 2009
) has been shown to have a pathogenicity in pigs similar to the wild-type IA/30 virus (Lekcharoensuk et al., 2005
; Vincent et al., 2008
). However, no parental IA/30 virus generated by reverse genetics was found in BALF samples and nasal swabs from co-infected pigs, indicating that the parental triple-reassortant H3N2 viruses found in the lungs of the co-infected animals replicated more efficiently than the parental IA/30 virus. These results confirmed our previous findings that the IA/30 virus does not shed efficiently via the noses of pigs when compared with other H1N1 SIVs (Vincent et al., 2008
). The rH1N1 virus levels were fourfold higher in the lungs of co-infected pigs than the other three subtypes (H3N2, H1N2 and H3N1). Eighteen H1N1 isolates contained the TRIG or modified TRIG cassette; however, these triple-reassortant H1N1 viruses were not isolated from the nasal swab samples of primary co-infected pigs and from contact animals, and were not successfully transmitted to contact pigs, indicating that the triple-reassortant H1N1 virus did not transmit efficiently among pigs in the presence of other viruses. Although other subtypes of virus containing the same TRIG cassette as the triple-reassortant Tx/98 virus were present in the lungs, only the parental Tx/98 H3N2 virus was transmitted from primary co-infected pigs to two groups of sentinel animals and became established in the contact pigs. The seroconversion data of contact pigs on day 14 p.c. to the Tx/98 virus [haemagglutination titre (HI) titre of 640] vs the IA/30 virus (HI titre of <20) support the assumption that the Tx/98 virus had a tremendous advantage when replicating in pigs (data not shown). These results indicated that the H3N2 Tx/98 virus has an optimal genetic constellation that contributes to efficient replication and successful transmission among pigs when compared with the IA/30 and other reassortant viruses. If currently circulating cH1N1 virus other than IA/30 had been used in this study, the results may have been different, and not only the parental Tx/98 H3N2 virus but also other viruses may have been transmitted to the sentinel animals. Although the triple-reassortant H1N1, H1N2 and H3N1 subtypes have been isolated from swine herds in the field, in this particular study, the similar subtype viruses containing the TRIG cassette of the Tx/98 virus were not able to transmit efficiently and be maintained in the small groups of pigs in the presence of the H3N2 Tx/98 virus. This finding suggests that a prerequisite for an influenza virus to establish and maintain itself in pigs is the right combination of HA and NA genes as well as the TRIG cassette, which may be reflected in the field situation with North American SIVs. The current pandemic H1N1 virus may be another example – a virus that contains the modified TRIG cassette, the NA from Eurasian swine virus and the HA from the North American triple-reassortant swine virus (Garten et al., 2009
). This virus has infected humans and has been transmitted effectively from humans to pigs and to other species (WHO, 2009
), and has caused over 15
000 human deaths worldwide as of February 2010 (WHO, 2010
). The virulence and transmission capacity of this virus suggest that the genetic constellation of the pandemic H1N1 virus is optimal for its effective replication, transmission and adaptation to different hosts. In this study, only the Tx/98 virus was successfully transmitted and established in pigs, even though other subtypes of virus containing a similar TRIG cassette were produced simultaneously. These results indicate that reassortment will occur when pigs are infected with different viruses, but only the virus with an optimal gene constellation will have the opportunity to establish itself in herds under similar selective pressure. Therefore, the old dogma of the pig as a ‘mixing vessel’ needs to be readdressed. In a scenario where efficient reassortment occurs in the lung, only the fittest virus will be maintained in a pig population.