Feline leukaemia viruses (FeLVs) are classified into subgroups A, B and C by their use of different host cell receptors on feline cells, a phenotype which is determined by the viral envelope. FeLV-A is the ubiquitous, highly infectious form of FeLV, and FeLV-C isolates are rare variants which are invariably isolated along with FeLV-A. The FeLV-C isolates share the capacity to induce acute non-regenerative anaemia and the prototype, FeLV-C/Sarma, has strongly age-restricted infectivity for cats. The FeLV-C/Sarma sequence is closely related to that of common, weakly pathogenic FeLV-A isolates. We now show by construction of chimeric viruses that the receptor specificity of FeLV-A/Glasgow-1 virus can be converted to that of FeLV-C by exchange of a single variable domain, Vr1, which differs by a three codon deletion and nine adjacent substitutions. Attempts to dissect this region further by directed mutagenesis resulted in disabled proviruses. Sequence analysis of independent natural FeLV-C isolates showed that they have unique Vr1 sequences which are distinct from the conserved FeLV-A pattern. The chimeric viruses which acquired the host range and subgroup properties of FeLV-C retained certain FeLV-A-like properties in that they were non-cytopathogenic in 3201B feline T cells and readily induced viraemia in weanling animals. They also induced a profound anaemia in neonates which had a more prolonged course than that induced by FeLV-C/Sarma and which was macrocytic rather than non-regenerative in nature. Although receptor specificity and a major determinant of pathogenicity segregate with Vr1, it appears that sequences elsewhere in the genome influence infectivity and pathogenicity independently of the subgroup phenotype.


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