Escape mutants of tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) virus were selected using neutralizing monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) that react with three different and previously unrecognized epitopes in the envelope protein E of TBE virus. Two of these variants (V-IC3 and V-IE3) exhibited a significantly reduced reactivity with their selecting MAbs, as determined by ELISA, whereas with one variant (V-IO3), reactivity was completely unchanged. Comparative sequence analyses demonstrated that each of the variants differed from the wild-type virus by a single amino acid substitution located at exposed positions within domains I, II and III of protein E. In the mouse model, all three mutants were still neuro-virulent but exhibited a significantly reduced neuro-invasiveness after subcutaneous inoculation. Virus replication, however, was sufficient to induce a specific antibody response. The observed alterations in virulence properties were not associated with reduced growth rates in vertebrate cell cultures, but one variant (V-IE3) exhibited a small plaque phenotype. The mutation of variant V-IO3 resulted in a temperature-sensitive phenotype and a significant elevation of the pH-threshold of the conformational change necessary for fusion activity.


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