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Open Access Research article

The nonadaptive nature of the H1N1 2009 Swine Flu pandemic contrasts with the adaptive facilitation of transmission to a new host

Juwaeriah Abdussamad12 and Stéphane Aris-Brosou134*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada

2 Vellore Institute of Technology University, Vellore, India

3 Center for Advanced Research in Environmental Genomics, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada

4 Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:6  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-6

Published: 6 January 2011



The emergence of the 2009 H1N1 Influenza pandemic followed a multiple reassortment event from viruses originally circulating in swines and humans, but the adaptive nature of this emergence is poorly understood.


Here we base our analysis on 1180 complete genomes of H1N1 viruses sampled in North America between 2000 and 2010 in swine and human hosts. We show that while transmission to a human host might require an adaptive phase in the HA and NA antigens, the emergence of the 2009 pandemic was essentially nonadaptive. A more detailed analysis of the NA protein shows that the 2009 pandemic sequence is characterized by novel epitopes and by a particular substitution in loop 150, which is responsible for a nonadaptive structural change tightly associated with the emergence of the pandemic.


Because this substitution was not present in the 1918 H1N1 pandemic virus, we posit that the emergence of pandemics is due to epistatic interactions between sites distributed over different segments. Altogether, our results are consistent with population dynamics models that highlight the epistatic and nonadaptive rise of novel epitopes in viral populations, followed by their demise when the resulting virus is too virulent.