The ribonucleoprotein transfection system for influenza virus allowed us to construct an influenza A virus containing a chimeric neuraminidase (NA) gene in which the noncoding sequence is derived from the NS gene of influenza B virus (T. Muster, E. K. Subbarao, M. Enami, B. P. Murphy, and P. Palese, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 88:5177-5181, 1991). This transfectant virus is attenuated in mice and grows to lower titers in tissue culture than wild-type virus. Since such a virus has characteristics desirable for a live attenuated vaccine strain, attempts were made to characterize this virus at the molecular level. Our analysis suggests that the attenuation of the virus is due to changes in the cis signal sequences, which resulted in a reduction of transcription and replication of the chimeric NA gene. The major finding concerns a sixfold reduction in NA-specific viral RNA in the virion, causing a reduction in the ratio of infectious particles to physical particles compared with the ratio in wild-type virus. Although the NA-specific mRNA level is also reduced in transfectant virus-infected cells, it does not appear to contribute to the attenuation characteristics of the virus. The levels of the other RNAs and their expression appear to be unchanged for the transfectant virus. It is suggested that downregulation of the synthesis of one viral RNA segment leads to the generation of defective viruses during each replication cycle. We believe that this represents a general principle for attenuation which may be applied to other segmented viruses containing either single-stranded or double-stranded RNA
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