The 5′-terminal untranslated region (5′ UTR) of the uncapped hepatitis A virus (HAV) RNA contains two pyrimidine-rich sequences; one about 20 nucleotides (nt) in length in the vicinity of the AUG initiation codon (nt 706–726), and a longer one (about 40 nt) encompassing nt 100 to 140. The latter includes a 13 nt ‘core’ sequence (positions 126–138 in the HM175 strain) which is 80% identical to the pyrimidine-rich tract of poliovirus type 1 RNA (Mahoney strain). Representative cDNAs of the entire 5′ UTR of HAV RNA were inserted in the intercistronic region of the bi-cistronic plasmid pSV-GH/CAT between the genes coding for the human growth hormone (GH) and bacterial chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT). When COS-7 cells were transfected with these constructs they transiently expressed CAT indicating that the 5′ UTR of HAV was efficiently directing internal initiation of translation of the reporter gene. Under similar conditions the 5′ UTR of poliovirus type 2 (Lansing strain) was 30% more efficient in directing the expression of the CAT gene. Removal of the ‘core’ sequence from the 5′-distal pyrimidine-rich stretch extending between nt 117 and 131 in the HAV 5′ UTR reduced the CAT activity in the lysates of transfected cells by 40%, whereas point mutations engineered in this segment strongly decreased (80% inhibition) the HAV-driven expression of the reporter gene. Limited mutations systematically introduced in the reiterated (U)UUUCCC motifs of the 5′-distal pyrimidine-rich tract identified two major functional domains extending between nt 100–106 and 113–119. Substitutions in these hexanucleotides abrogated internal initiation of translation, whereas similar changes in the neighbouring domains (nt 107–112 and 120–126) had no effect on the expression of the reporter gene, suggesting that the 5′-most pyrimidine-rich tract is indeed part of the structure(s) recognized by ribosomes and associated factors at initiation of translation and that the hexanucleotides 100–106 and 113–119 constitute and important part of it. Although HAV replicates better at 33°C than at 37°C, incubation of transfected cultures at 33 °C delayed the expression and slightly reduced the level of CAT activity in the cell lysates, but the overall effect of the mutations remained unchanged.


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