Recent gain-of-function studies in influenza A virus H5N1 strains revealed that as few as three-amino-acid changes in the hemagglutinin protein confer the capacity for viral transmission between ferrets. As transmission between ferrets is considered a surrogate indicator of transmissibility between humans, these studies raised concerns about the risks of gain-of-function influenza A virus research. Here we present an approach to strengthen the biosafety of gain-of-function influenza experiments. We exploit species-specific endogenous small RNAs to restrict influenza A virus tropism. In particular, we found that the microRNA miR-192 was expressed in primary human respiratory tract epithelial cells as well as in mouse lungs but absent from the ferret respiratory tract. Incorporation of miR-192 target sites into influenza A virus did not prevent influenza replication and transmissibility in ferrets, but did attenuate influenza pathogenicity in mice. This molecular biocontainment approach should be applicable beyond influenza A virus to minimize the risk of experiments involving other pathogenic viruses.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
- Molecular Medicine
- Biomedical Engineering