The role of gulls in the ecology of avian influenza (AI) is different than that of waterfowl. Different constellations of subtypes circulate within the two groups of birds and AI viruses isolated from North American gulls frequently possess reassortant genomes with genetic elements from both North America and Eurasian lineages. A 2008 isolate from a Newfoundland Great Black-backed Gull contained a mix of North American waterfowl, North American gull and Eurasian lineage genes.
We isolated, sequenced and phylogenetically compared avian influenza viruses from 2009 Canadian wild birds.
We analyzed six 2009 virus isolates from Canada and found the same phylogenetic lineage had persisted over a larger geographic area, with an expanded host range that included dabbling and diving ducks as well as gulls. All of the 2009 virus isolates contained an internal protein coding set of genes of the same Eurasian lineage genes except PB1 that was from a North American lineage, and these genes continued to evolve by genetic drift. We show evidence that the 2008 Great Black-backed Gull virus was derived from this lineage with a reassortment of a North American PA gene into the more stable core set of internal protein coding genes that has circulated in avian populations for at least 2 years. From this core, the surface glycoprotein genes have switched several times creating H13N6, H13N2, and H16N3 subtypes. These gene segments were from North American lineages except for the H16 and N3 vRNAs.
This process appears similar to genetic shifts seen with swine influenza where a stable “triple reassortant internal gene” core has circulated in swine populations with genetic shifts occurring with hemaggluttinin and neuraminidase proteins getting periodically switched. Thus gulls may serve as genetic mixing vessels for different lineages of avian influenza, similar to the role of swine with regards to human influenza. These findings illustrate the need for continued surveillance in gull and waterfowl populations, both on the Pacific and especially Atlantic coasts of North America, to document virus intercontinental movement and the role of gull species in the evolution and epidemiology of AI.