The biosynthesis of the secretory core gene product of the woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV) was studied in human cells. We have shown that the WHV e antigen was a -glycosylated (most likely a diglycosylated) protein, with an apparent of 24K. To demonstrate that the WHV precore protein was correctly processed in human cells, we engineered chimeric proteins in which signal peptides or arginine-rich domains of WHV and hepatitis B virus (HBV) precore proteins were exchanged. Our results showed that both the signal peptide and the arginine-rich region of WHV precore protein were cleaved off during the secretion pathway, as previously reported for precore protein of human HBV and duck HBV. These observations demonstrate that the maturation process of the e antigen is conserved in hepadnaviruses. In addition, on the basis of inhibition experiments, we suggest that the cleavage of the carboxy terminus of the WHV precore protein occurred in a post-endoplasmic reticulum compartment, most likely beyond the medial Golgi, and that this cleavage was catalysed by an aspartyl protease.


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