In order to elucidate the mechanisms of hepadnavirus evolution in vivo and to trace the fate of known quasispecies in a single animal during the acute phase of infection, a woodchuck (Marmota monax) was infected with the hepadnavirus woodchuck hepatitis B virus (WHV). Woodchuck 197 (W197) was injected intravenously with pooled sera collected from a chronic carrier that had been infected originally with a molecular clone of known genome sequence (WHV7). Viral genome variants from both the inoculum and the follow-up sera from W197 were characterized for the presence of quasispecies related to the WHV7 sequence. Interestingly, WHV7-related genomes were predominant 6 weeks post-infection (p.i.), whereas a highly heterogeneous virus population was present in the first viraemic serum (4 weeks p.i.). Using WHV7 as the prototype, the variability of the Pol and PreS/S regions in the first 11 weeks p.i. has been calculated. The sequence population in serum collected 6 weeks p.i. was highly homogeneous, with a mean variability of 0.36% in the region analysed. Mean variability values ranging from 0.82% to 1.61% were found in quasispecies from the other sera. The presence of possible selective pressure was analysed by means of the non-synonymous versus synonymous variation ratio (dn/d5). We found that the dn/d5 values were stable for the S ORF (ranging from 2.6 to 3.0), whereas a wider range was observed for the Pol ORF (from 1.4 to 3.0). Furthermore, from the analysis of the variability of the codon positions for the two overlapping ORFs it was found that, in most cases, non-synonymous mutations at position 1 of the Pol ORF (position 3 of the S ORF) corresponded to synonymous variation in the S (Pol) ORF, indicating independent evolution of the encoded proteins.


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