With the recent emergence of a novel pandemic strain, there is presently intense interest in understanding the molecular signatures of virulence of influenza viruses. PB1-F2 proteins from epidemiologically important influenza A virus strains were studied to determine their function and contribution to virulence. Using 27-mer peptides derived from the C-terminal sequence of PB1-F2 and chimeric viruses engineered on a common background, we demonstrated that induction of cell death through PB1-F2 is dependent upon BAK/BAX mediated cytochrome c release from mitochondria. This function was specific for the PB1-F2 protein of A/Puerto Rico/8/34 and was not seen using PB1-F2 peptides derived from past pandemic strains. However, PB1-F2 proteins from the three pandemic strains of the 20(th) century and a highly pathogenic strain of the H5N1 subtype were shown to enhance the lung inflammatory response resulting in increased pathology. Recently circulating seasonal influenza A strains were not capable of this pro-inflammatory function, having lost the PB1-F2 protein's immunostimulatory activity through truncation or mutation during adaptation in humans. These data suggest that the PB1-F2 protein contributes to the virulence of pandemic strains when the PB1 gene segment is recently derived from the avian reservoir.