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The three variable regions of hepatitis C virus (HCV) glycoprotein E2 can be removed simultaneously from the E2 ectodomain (residues 384-661) without affecting folding or CD81 binding. In this study, we show that deletion of hypervariable region (HVR) 2 or the intergenotypic variable region (igVR) in the context of the E1E2 polyprotein eliminates formation of heterodimers, reduces CD81 binding and abolishes virus entry. The replication competence of genomic RNA transcribed from the JFH1 infectious HCV clone was not affected by the HVR1, HVR2 or igVR deletions in transfected Huh7.5 cells. However, infectivity of the resultant cell-culture-derived HCV (HCVcc) was abolished by HVR2 or igVR deletions, while deletion of HVR1 led to a 5- to 10-fold reduction in infectivity. Serial passage of cells transfected with genomes lacking HVR1 generated reverted viruses with wild-type levels of infectivity. Sequencing of viral cDNA obtained after full reversion revealed mutations in E1 (I262L) and E2 (N415D) that were present in 35 and 27 % of clones, respectively. Insertion of N415D into HVR1-deleted HCV genomes conferred wild-type levels of infectivity, while I262L increased infectivity by 2.5-fold. These results suggest that HVR2 and the igVR, but not HVR1, are essential for structural integrity and function of the HCV glycoprotein heterodimer.
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