Hepatitis B virus (HBV) genomes with deletions in the precore-core (preC-C) promoter have been detected in HBV infections without serological markers. To address whether the mutations are responsible for the reduced production of virus antigenes, either an 8 bp (8d, position 1763 to 1770) or a 20 bp (20d, 1753 to 1772) deletion was created in a wild-type (wt) HBV clone. Both mutations cause premature termination of the overlapping X ORF. When introduced into HepG2 cells, both mutants produced reduced amounts of HBsAg, HBcAg and HBeAg, but released the same or more virion-associated DNA compared with the wt. A co-transfection of the 20d mutant with a small amount of intact X gene resulted in a 3-fold increase of HBcAg production compared to transfection with either the 20d or wt alone. When the promoter region was cloned into CAT plasmids, the 8d preC promoter showed weak activity and its initiation site was shifted 6 to 10 bp downstream. The preC promoter activity of 20d was not detectable by CAT ELISA and 5' RACE. The levels of C transcripts of both mutants were higher than that of the wt, and their start sites were not altered. Therefore, the deletions cause the reduction of HBsAg, HBcAg and HBeAg although the mutant viruses can still replicate in cultured cells. The reduction of HBeAg is due to both the reduced preC promoter activity and the defect in HBx. The reduction of HBcAg is due to the disrupted X gene, despite augmented C promoter activity.


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