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Identification of novel subgroup A variants with enhanced receptor binding and replicative capacity in primary isolates of anaemogenic strains of feline leukaemia virus

Hazel Stewart*, Karen W Adema, Elizabeth L McMonagle, Margaret J Hosie and Brian J Willett

Author Affiliations

Medical Research Council-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research, Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, 464 Bearsden Road, Glasgow, UK

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Retrovirology 2012, 9:48  doi:10.1186/1742-4690-9-48

Published: 31 May 2012



The development of anaemia in feline leukaemia virus (FeLV)-infected cats is associated with the emergence of a novel viral subgroup, FeLV-C. FeLV-C arises from the subgroup that is transmitted, FeLV-A, through alterations in the amino acid sequence of the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the envelope glycoprotein that result in a shift in the receptor usage and the cell tropism of the virus. The factors that influence the transition from subgroup A to subgroup C remain unclear, one possibility is that a selective pressure in the host drives the acquisition of mutations in the RBD, creating A/C intermediates with enhanced abilities to interact with the FeLV-C receptor, FLVCR. In order to understand further the emergence of FeLV-C in the infected cat, we examined primary isolates of FeLV-C for evidence of FeLV-A variants that bore mutations consistent with a gradual evolution from FeLV-A to FeLV-C.


Within each isolate of FeLV-C, we identified variants that were ostensibly subgroup A by nucleic acid sequence comparisons, but which bore mutations in the RBD. One such mutation, N91D, was present in multiple isolates and when engineered into a molecular clone of the prototypic FeLV-A (Glasgow-1), enhanced replication was noted in feline cells. Expression of the N91D Env on murine leukaemia virus (MLV) pseudotypes enhanced viral entry mediated by the FeLV-A receptor THTR1 while soluble FeLV-A Env bearing the N91D mutation bound more efficiently to mouse or guinea pig cells bearing the FeLV-A and -C receptors. Long-term in vitro culture of variants bearing the N91D substitution in the presence of anti-FeLV gp70 antibodies did not result in the emergence of FeLV-C variants, suggesting that additional selective pressures in the infected cat may drive the subsequent evolution from subgroup A to subgroup C.


Our data support a model in which variants of FeLV-A, bearing subtle differences in the RBD of Env, may be predisposed towards enhanced replication in vivo and subsequent conversion to FeLV-C. The selection pressures in vivo that drive the emergence of FeLV-C in a proportion of infected cats remain to be established.

Feline leukaemia virus; FeLV; Anaemia; Receptor