The antigenic determinants for the main hepatitis B virus (HBV) subtypes and lie in the S (surface) polypeptide. Two amino acid residues in particular, encoded by the S gene at codon positions 122 and 160, have been postulated to determine the different antigenic subtypes. In contrast, the 165 nucleotide pre-S2 gene encodes an immunodominant region common to all subtypes that can give rise to neutralizing antibodies. We have characterized the pre-S2 gene sequences of 29 HBV strains of the three main subtypes, and . Seven base positions showed variation that was entirely subtype-specific, with six of these variations leading to subtype-specific amino acid differences. This finding affords the possibility of using pre-S2 sequences for genetic subtyping. Two strains from unrelated patients infected in the Middle East had identical pre-S2 sequences with a block of 12 nucleotides deleted. A geographical correlation with subtype observed from serological results was also apparent from phylogenetic analysis of DNA identities within the pre-S2 region. The results support the concept that the main HBV subtypes truly represent families of phylogenetically different strains.


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