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Flu Drift Limited
Five antigenic sites in the virus surface hemagglutinin protein, which together comprise 131 amino acid positions, are thought to determine the full scope of antigenic drift of influenza A virus. Koel et al. (p. 976) show that major antigenic change can be caused by single amino acid substitutions. These single substitutions substantially skew the way the immune system “sees” the virus. All substitutions of importance are located next to the receptor-binding site in the hemagglutinin. Because there are few positions of importance for antigenic drift, there are strict biophysical limitations to the substitutions at these positions, which restricts the number of new antigenic drift variants at any point in time. Thus, the evolution of influenza virus may be more predictable than previously thought.
The molecular basis of antigenic drift was determined for the hemagglutinin (HA) of human influenza A/H3N2 virus. From 1968 to 2003, antigenic change was caused mainly by single amino acid substitutions, which occurred at only seven positions in HA immediately adjacent to the receptor binding site. Most of these substitutions were involved in antigenic change more than once. Equivalent positions were responsible for the recent antigenic changes of influenza B and A/H1N1 viruses. Substitution of a single amino acid at one of these positions substantially changed the virus-specific antibody response in infected ferrets. These findings have potentially far-reaching consequences for understanding the evolutionary mechanisms that govern influenza viruses.