Importin-?7 is required for enhanced influenza A virus replication in the alveolar epithelium and severe lung damage in mice.
Influenza A viruses recruit components of the nuclear import pathway to enter the host cell nucleus and promote viral replication. Here, we analyzed the role of the nuclear import factor importin-?7 in H1N1 influenza virus pulmonary tropism by using various ex vivo imaging techniques (magnetic resonance imaging, confocal laser scanning microscopy, and correlative light-electron microscopy). We infected importin-?7 gene-deficient (?7(-/-)) mice with a recombinant H1N1 influenza virus and compared the in vivo viral kinetics with those in wild-type (WT) mice. In WT mice, influenza virus replication in the bronchial and alveolar epithelium already occurred a few days after infection. Accordingly, extensive mononuclear infiltration and alveolar destruction were present in the lungs of infected WT mice, followed by 100% lethality. Conversely, in ?7(-/-) mice, virus replication was restricted mostly to the bronchial epithelium with marginal alveolar infection, resulting in significantly reduced lung damage and enhanced animal survival. To investigate the host immune response during alveolar virus replication, we studied the role of primary macrophages in virus propagation and clearance. The ability of macrophages to support or clear the virus infection, as well as the host cellular immune responses, did not significantly differ between WT and ?7(-/-) mice. However, cytokine and chemokine responses were generally elevated in WT mice, likely reflective of increased viral replication in the lung. In summary, these data show that a cellular factor, importin-?7, is required for enhanced virus replication in the alveolar epithelium, resulting in elevated cytokine and chemokine levels, extensive mononuclear infiltration, and thus, severe pneumonia and enhanced virulence in mice. Importance: Influenza A viruses are respiratory pathogens that may cause pneumonia in humans. Viral infection and replication in the alveoli of the respiratory tract are believed to be crucial for the development of the acute respiratory distress syndrome associated with fatal outcomes in influenza virus-infected patients. Here, we report the requirement of a cellular factor, importin-?7, for efficient virus replication in the alveolar epithelium of mice. Using complementary ex vivo imaging approaches, we show that influenza virus replication is restricted to the bronchial epithelium, followed by enhanced survival in importin-?7-deficient mice. In contrast, the presence of this gene results in enhanced virus replication in the alveoli, elevated cytokine and chemokine responses, mononuclear infiltration, alveolar destruction, and 100% lethality in wild-type mice. Taken together, our results show that importin-?7 is particularly required for virus replication in the alveolar epithelium in association with severe pneumonia and death in mice.