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J Virol. 2001 Apr;75(8):3811-8.

Replication of naturally occurring woodchuck hepatitis virus deletion mutants in primary hepatocyte cultures and after transmission to naive woodchucks.

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Institut für Virologie, Universitätsklinikum Essen, 45122 Essen, Germany.


Woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV) mutants with core internal deletions (CID) occur naturally in chronically WHV-infected woodchucks, as do hepatitis B virus mutants in humans. We studied the replication of WHV deletion mutants in primary woodchuck hepatocyte cultures and in vivo after transmission to naive woodchucks. By screening 14 wild-caught, chronically WHV-infected woodchucks, two woodchucks, WH69 and WH70, were found to harbor WHV CID mutants. Consistent with previous results, WHV CID mutants from both animals had deletions of variable lengths (90 to 135 bp) within the middle of the WHV core gene. In woodchuck WH69, WHV CID mutants represented a predominant fraction of the viral population in sera, normal liver tissues, and to a lesser extent, in liver tumor tissues. In primary hepatocytes of WH69, the replication of wild-type WHV and CID mutants was maintained at least for 7 days. Although WHV CID mutants were predominant in fractions of cellular WHV replicative intermediates, mutant covalently closed circular DNAs (cccDNAs) appeared to be a small part of cccDNA-enriched fractions. Analysis of cccDNA-enriched fractions from liver tissues of other woodchucks confirmed that mutant cccDNA represents only a small fraction of the total cccDNA pool. Four naive woodchucks were inoculated with sera from woodchuck WH69 or WH70 containing WHV CID mutants. All four woodchucks developed viremia after 3 to 4 weeks postinoculation (p.i.). They developed anti-WHV core antigen (WHcAg) antibody, lymphoproliferative response to WHcAg, and anti-WHV surface antigen. Only wild-type WHV, but no CID mutant, was found in sera from these woodchucks. The WHV CID mutant was also not identified in liver tissue from one woodchuck sacrificed in week 7 p.i. Three remaining woodchucks cleared WHV. Thus, the presence of WHV CID mutants in the inocula did not significantly change the course of acute self-limiting WHV infection. Our results indicate that the replication of WHV CID mutants might require some specific selective conditions. Further investigations on WHV CID mutants will allow us to have more insight into hepadnavirus replication.

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