Adaptive mutations and/or reassortments in avian influenza virus polymerase subunits PA, PB1, and PB2 are one of the major factors enabling the virus to overcome the species barrier to infect humans. The majority of human adaptation polymerase mutations have been identified in PB2; fewer adaptation mutations have been characterized in PA and PB1. Clade 2.2.1 avian influenza viruses (H5N1) are unique to Egypt and generally carry the human adaptation PB2-E627K substitution during their dissemination in nature. In this study, we identified other human adaptation polymerase mutations by analyzing phylogeny-associated PA mutations that H5N1 clade 2.2.1 viruses have accumulated during their evolution in the field. This analysis identified several PA mutations that produced increased replication by contemporary clade 220.127.116.11 viruses in vitro in human cells and in vivo in mice compared to ancestral clade 2.2.1 viruses. The PA mutations acted cooperatively to increase viral polymerase activity and replication in both avian and human cells, with the effect being more prominent in human cells at 33°C than at 37°C. These results indicated that PA mutations have a role in establishing contemporary clade 18.104.22.168 virus infections in poultry and in adaptation to infect mammals. Our study provided data on the mechanism for PA mutations to accumulate during avian influenza virus evolution and extend the viral host range.
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