Mutations in the hepatitis B virus (HBV) genome have so far been investigated in cross-sectional or short-term longitudinal studies. Information about long-term changes is lacking due to the difficulty of sampling over long observation periods. In this study, a retrospective approach was used that allowed the analysis of changes in the viral genome from transmission to late stages of infection without the requirement for sampling early during this period. The entire viral genome was sequenced from serum samples of three mothers and their 10 adult children, who presumably had been infected vertically. The emergence of mutations between birth and sampling (mean 26·5 years) was assessed by comparing the individual sequences with the sequence of the strain assumed to have been transmitted. The mean differences from this sequence were 0·02 and 0·28% in seven asymptomatic and one symptomatic hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg)-positive carriers, respectively, and 0·62 % in five HBeAg-negative carriers. Mutations occurred throughout the genome and 88% of the mutations caused amino acid substitutions spread over all genes. In HBeAg-negative carriers, the number of nucleotide and amino acid changes was independent of the severity of liver disease and, except the AGG→TGA changes, no specific mutation was associated with liver disease. In conclusion, by using a novel method it was found that the entire HBV genome is extremely stable over long periods of time during the HBeAg-positive phase if the immune response (inflammation) is weak, whereas an average of 20 mutations emerged after development of hepatitis and/or loss of HBeAg without association with clinical outcome.


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