We selected murine coronavirus JHM variants specifically changed in defined antigenic sites of the peplomer protein E2. Variants were isolated from the supernatants of monoclonal antibody hybridoma cell cultures which continued to secrete neutralizing antibodies after being infected with JHM. Comparative antigenic analysis and biological tests were performed in order to refine an operational epitope map and to characterize functional domains important for pathogenicity. The reaction patterns (neutralization, inhibition of cell fusion, immunofluorescence and binding in ELISA) between the variant viruses and the panel of monoclonal antibodies were very similar. Four groups of variants were characterized each of which revealed distinct changes affecting one defined antigenic site. These observations indicated that at least four independently mutable antigenic sites were associated with domains involved in cell fusion, neutralization and pathogenicity (E2-Aa, -Ab, -Ba and -Bb). JHM variants with alterations in the E2-Aa, -Ab or -Bb sites were similar to wild-type virus. These variants caused acute hepatitis and encephalomyelitis in mice. In contrast, JHM variants with changes in site E2-Ba had a strong propensity to induce chronic disease accompanied by demyelination persisting for several months.


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