Some Newcastle disease virus (NDV) variants isolated from pigeons (pigeon paramyxovirus type 1; PPMV-1) do not show their full virulence potential for domestic chickens but may become virulent upon spread in these animals. In this study we examined the molecular changes responsible for this gain of virulence by passaging a low-pathogenic PPMV-1 isolate in chickens. Complete genome sequencing of virus obtained after 1, 3 and 5 passages showed the increase in virulence was not accompanied by changes in the fusion protein – a well known virulence determinant of NDV – but by mutations in the L and P replication proteins. The effect of these mutations on virulence was confirmed by means of reverse genetics using an infectious cDNA clone. Acquisition of three amino acid mutations, two in the L protein and one in the P protein, significantly increased virulence as determined by intracerebral pathogenicity index tests in day-old chickens. The mutations enhanced virus replication in vitro and in vivo and increased the plaque size in infected cell culture monolayers. Furthermore, they increased the activity of the viral replication complex as determined by an in vitro minigenome replication assay. Our data demonstrate that PPMV-1 replication in chickens results in mutations in the polymerase complex rather than the viral fusion protein, and that the virulence level of pigeon paramyxoviruses is directly related to the activity of the viral replication complex.
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