The recently identified H7N9 influenza A virus has caused severe economic losses and worldwide public concern. Genetic analysis indicates that its six internal genes all originated from H9N2 viruses. However, the H7N9 virus is more highly pathogenic in humans than H9N2, which suggests that the internal genes of H7N9 have mutated. To analyze which H7N9 virus internal genes contribute to its high pathogenicity, a series of reassortants was generated by reverse genetics, with each virus containing a single internal gene of the typical A/Anhui/1/2013 (H7N9) (AH-H7N9) virus in the genetic background of the A/chicken/Shandong/lx1023/2007 (H9N2) virus. The replication ability, polymerase activity, and pathogenicity of these viruses were then evaluated in vitro and in vivo. These recombinants displayed high genetic compatibility, and the H7N9-derived PB2, M, and NP genes were identified as the virulence genes for the reassortants in mice. Further investigation confirmed that the PB2 K627 residue is critical for the high pathogenicity of the H7N9 virus and the reassortant containing the H7N9-derived PB2 segment (H9N2-AH/PB2). Notably, the H7N9-derived PB2 gene displayed greater compatibility with the H9N2 genome than that of H7N9, endowing the H9N2-AH/PB2 reassortant with greater viability and virulence than the parental H7N9 virus. In addition, the H7N9 virus, with the exception of the H9N2 reassortants, could effectively replicate in human A549 cells. Our results indicate that PB2, M, and NP are the key virulence genes, together with the surface hemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA) proteins, contributing to the high infectivity of the H7N9 virus in humans.
IMPORTANCE To date, the novel H7N9 influenza A virus has caused 437 human infections, with approximately 30% mortality. Previous work has primarily focused on the two viral surface proteins, HA and NA, but the contribution of the six internal genes to the high pathogenicity of H7N9 has not been systematically studied. Here, the H9N2 virus was used as a genetic backbone to evaluate the virulence genes of H7N9 virus in vitro and in vivo. Our data indicate that the PB2, M, and NP genes play important roles in viral infection in mice and, together with HA and NA, contribute to the high infectivity of the H7N9 virus in humans.