Mechanisms controlling virulence thresholds of mixed viral populations

Karen Z. Lancaster, Julie K. Pfeiffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


The propensity of RNA viruses to revert attenuating mutations contributes to disease and complicates vaccine development. Despite the presence of virulent revertant viruses in some live-attenuated vaccines, disease from vaccination is rare. This suggests that in mixed viral populations, attenuated viruses may limit the pathogenesis of virulent viruses, thus establishing a virulence threshold. Here we examined virulence thresholds using mixtures of virulent and attenuated viruses in a transgenic mouse model of poliovirus infection. We determined that a 1,000-fold excess of the attenuated Sabin strain of poliovirus was protective against disease induced by the virulent Mahoney strain. Protection was induced locally, and inactivated virus conferred protection. Treatment with a poliovirus receptor-blocking antibody phenocopied the protective effect of inactivated viruses in vitro and in vivo, suggesting that one mechanism controlling virulence thresholds may be competition for a viral receptor. Additionally, the type I interferon response reduces poliovirus pathogenesis; therefore, we examined virulence thresholds in mice lacking the alpha/beta interferon receptor. We found that the attenuated virus was virulent in immunodeficient mice due to the enhanced replication and reversion of attenuating mutations. Therefore, while the type I interferon response limits the virulence of the attenuated strain by reducing replication, protection from disease conferred by the attenuated strain in immunocompetent mice can occur independently of replication. Our results identified mechanisms controlling the virulence of mixed viral populations and indicate that live-attenuated vaccines containing virulent virus may be safe, as long as virulent viruses are present at levels below a critical threshold.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9778-9788
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Insect Science
  • Virology


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