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J Virol. 1992 Sep;66(9):5682-4.

The precore gene of the woodchuck hepatitis virus genome is not essential for viral replication in the natural host.

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Hepatitis Viruses Section, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892.


A number of naturally occurring hepatitis B virus mutants that cannot synthesize the virus precore protein have been identified. Such mutants have been associated with more severe forms of hepatitis, including fulminant hepatitis. The most common mutation observed is a substitution of G to A in the distal precore gene that converts a codon specifying Trp (TGG) to a termination codon (TAG). Using oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis, we have produced the same point mutation in the precore gene of an infectious clone of woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV). Transfection of mutant WHV DNA into the livers of adult woodchucks resulted in replication of the mutant in three of three susceptible animals. Levels of virus replication and transient elevations in liver enzymes in serum were similar to those of adult animals infected with wild-type WHV. Virions, found to possess mutant precore genes by polymerase chain reaction amplification and DNA sequencing, were recovered from the serum of one of the animals and inoculated subcutaneously into neonatal woodchucks. They produced infection in all five animals studied. The level of virus replication in neonatal animals infected with this mutant virus was comparable to that found in neonatal woodchucks infected with wild-type WHV, but none of five woodchucks infected with the precore mutant virus as neonates became chronic virus carriers. It was concluded that the precore gene of the WHV genome is not essential for virus replication in the natural host but may be important for chronic infection.

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