Differential regulation of hepatitis B virus core protein expression and genome replication by a small upstream open reading frame and naturally occurring mutations in the precore region.

Zong L, Qin Y, Jia H et al.

Liver Research Center, Rhode Island Hospital, Warren Alpert School of Medicine, Brown University, Providence, RI, USA; Key Lab of Medical Molecular Virology, School of Basic Medical Sciences, Fudan University, Shanghai, China.

Virology. Mar 2017.

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) transcribes two subsets of 3.5-kb RNAs: precore RNA for hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) expression, and pregenomic RNA for core and P protein translation as well as genome replication. HBeAg expression could be prevented by mutations in the precore region, while an upstream open reading frame (uORF) has been proposed as a negative regulator of core protein translation. We employed replication competent HBV DNA constructs and transient transfection experiments in Huh7 cells to verify the uORF effect and to explore the alternative function of precore RNA. Optimized Kozak sequence for the uORF or extra ATG codons as present in some HBV genotypes reduced core protein expression. G1896A nonsense mutation promoted more efficient core protein expression than mutated precore ATG, while a +1 frameshift mutation was ineffective. In conclusion, various HBeAg-negative precore mutations and mutations affecting uORF differentially regulate core protein expression and genome replication.