We have applied the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique to analyse mutations in the thymidine kinase (TK) gene of varicella-zoster virus (VZV) associated with resistance to the 5-bromovinyl (BVaraU) and 5-propynyl (PYaraU) analogues of arabinofuranosyl deoxyuridine. The results from this study allow three clear conclusions to be drawn. Firstly, the technique clearly shows that populations of VZV derived from plaque purification were truly clonal only when the plaques were initiated from cell-free virus (representing a tiny fraction of infectious virus) and plaques initiated by infected cells contained a mixture of variants. Secondly, despite the background mutations caused by errors of the Taq DNA polymerase, mutations relevant to drug resistance can easily be distinguished. The BVaraU-resistant mutant, 7-1, contained an aspartic acid to asparagine mutation at residue 18 and a single base deletion (position 65298 of the VZV DNA sequence), resulting in a frameshift and premature termination of the polypeptide chain, was found in the BVaraU-resistant mutant YSR. PYaraU-resistant virus populations contained viruses with one or more of three independent mutations, i.e. single base substitutions resulting in mutations from leucine to proline at residue 92, histidine to arginine at residue 97 and a deletion of 20bp (residues 65135 to 65154). Finally, the technique has uncovered novel sites in the virus TK associated with drug resistance. We conclude that amplification using the PCR combined with cloning and sequencing is a relatively rapid method for identifying mutations in small virus populations even when they are not homogeneous.


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