Variants of hepatitis C virus (HCV) have been classified by nucleotide sequence comparisons in different regions of the genome. Many investigators have defined the ranges of sequence similarity values or evolutionary distances corresponding to divisions of HCV into types, subtypes and isolates. Using these criteria, novel variants of HCV from Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia have been classified as types 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11, many of which can be further subdivided into between two to four subtypes. In this study, this distance-based method of virus classification was compared with phylogenetic analysis and statistical measures to establish the confidence of the groupings. Using bootstrap resampling of phylogenetic trees in several subgenomic regions (core, E1, NS5) and with complete genomic sequences, we found that one set of novel HCV variants (‘types 7, 8, 9 and 11’) consistently grouped together into a single clade that also contained type 6a, while ‘type 10a’ grouped with type 3. In contrast, no robust higher-order groupings were observed between any of the other five previously described HCV genotypes (types 1–5). In each subgenomic region, the distribution of pairwise distances between members of the type 6 clade were consistently bi-modal and therefore provided no justification for classification of these variants into the three proposed categories (type, subtype, isolate). Based on these results, we propose that a more useful classification would regard all these variants as subtypes of type 6 or type 3, even though the level of sequence diversity within the clade was greater than observed for other genotypes. Classification by phylogenetic relatedness rules out simple sequence similarity measurements as a method for assigning HCV genotypes, but provides a more appropriate description of the evolutionary and epidemiological history of a virus.


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