Feline calicivirus (FCV) is a respiratory pathogen of cats that is capable of causing persistent infections. This study examined the evolution of a hypervariable region of the FCV capsid gene both during 90 passages in cell culture and during replication in persistently infected cats. This region of the capsid protein is known to contain neutralization epitopes and may be a target for immune evasion during virus persistence in the host. Sequence analysis showed that FCV exists as a quasispecies which evolved both in cell culture and in persistently infected cats. Changes involved both loss of sequence present in the infecting isolate and a gain of both synonymous and non-synonymous nucleotide substitutions to generate sequences not detected within earlier isolates. Overall, these changes led to a reduction in population heterogeneity over time. Where virus populations were highly homogeneous allowing a consensus sequence to be determined, evolution rates for the consensus sequence ranged from 0.10-1.07 substitutions per nucleotide per year. Marked changes in virus neutralization profiles were seen in isolates obtained sequentially from a persistently infected cat. This was not the case with cell culture passaged virus, suggesting that the individual amino acid changes found only in virus from persistently infected cats may significantly alter the antigenic profile of FCV, and may be the result of immune selection.


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