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J Virol. 2002 Jun;76(11):5326-38.

Genetic analysis of sequences in the 3' nontranslated region of hepatitis C virus that are important for RNA replication.

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  • 1Institute for Virology, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, 55131 Mainz, Germany.


The genome of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a plus-strand RNA molecule that carries a single long open reading frame. It is flanked at either end by highly conserved nontranslated regions (NTRs) that mediate crucial steps in the viral life cycle. The 3' NTR of HCV has a tripartite structure composed of an about 40-nucleotide variable region, a poly(U/UC) tract that has a heterogeneous length, and a highly conserved 98-nucleotide 3'-terminal sequence designated the X tail or 3'X. Conflicting data as to the role the sequences in the 3' NTR play in RNA replication have been reported. By using the HCV replicon system, which is based on the self-replication of subgenomic HCV RNAs in human hepatoma cell line Huh-7, we mapped in this study the sequences in the 3' NTR required for RNA replication. We found that a mutant with a complete deletion of the variable region is viable but that replication is reduced significantly. Only replicons in which the poly(U/UC) tract was replaced by a homouridine stretch of at least 26 nucleotides were able to replicate, whereas RNAs with homopolymeric guanine, adenine, or cytosine sequences were inactive. Deletions of individual or all stem-loop structures in 3'X were not tolerated, demonstrating that this region is most crucial for efficient RNA replication. Finally, we found that none of these deletions or substitutions within the 3' NTR affected RNA stability or translation, demonstrating that the primary effect of the mutations was on RNA replication. These data represent the first detailed mapping of sequences in the 3' NTR assumed to act as a promoter for initiation of minus-strand RNA synthesis.

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