Multiple alignments of hepatitis C virus (HCV) polyproteins from six different genotypes identified a total of 22 nonconsensus mutations in a clone derived from the Hutchinson (H77) isolate. These mutations, collectively, may have contributed to the failure in generating a 'functionally correct' or 'infectious' clone in earlier attempts. A consensus clone was constructed after systematic repair of these mutations, which yielded infectious virions in a chimpanzee after direct intrahepatic inoculation of in vitro transcribed RNAs. This RNA-infected chimpanzee has developed hepatitis and remained HCV positive for more than 11 months. To further verify this RNA-derived infectivity, a second naive chimpanzee was injected intravenously with serum collected from the first chimpanzee. Infectivity analysis of the second chimpanzee demonstrated that the HCV infection was successfully transmitted, which validated unequivocally the infectivity of our repaired molecular clone. Amino acid sequence comparisons revealed that our repaired infectious clone had 4 mismatches with the isogenic clone reported by Kolykhalov et al. (1997, Science 277, 570-574) and 8 mismatches with that reported by Yanagi et al. (1997, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 94, 8738-8743). At the RNA level, more mismatches (43 and 67, respectively) were identified; most of them were synonymous substitutions. Further comparisons with 16 isolates from different genotypes demonstrated that our repaired clone shares greater consensus than the reported isogenic clones. This approach of generating infectious HCV RNA validates the importance of amino acid sequence consensus in relation to the biology of HCV.
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