Constrained evolution of overlapping genes in viral host adaptation: Acquisition of glycosylation motifs in hepadnaviral precore/ core genes

Xupeng Hong, Stephan Menne, Jianming Hu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Hepadnaviruses use extensively overlapping genes to expand their coding capacity, especially the precore/core genes encode the precore and core proteins with mostly identical sequences but distinct functions. The precore protein of the woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV) is N-glycosylated, in contrast to the precore of the human hepatitis B virus (HBV) that lacks N-glycosylation. To explore the roles of the N-linked glycosylation sites in precore and core functions, we substituted T77 and T92 in the WHV precore/core N-glycosylation motifs (75NIT77 and 90NDT92) with the corresponding HBV residues (E77 and N92) to eliminate the sequons. Conversely, these N-glycosylation sequons were introduced into the HBV precore/core gene by E77T and N92T substitutions. We found that N-glycosylation increased the levels of secreted precore gene products from both HBV and WHV. However, the HBV core (HBc) protein carrying the E77T substitution was defective in supporting virion secretion, and during infection, the HBc E77T and N92T substitutions impaired the formation of the covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA), the critical viral DNA molecule responsible for establishing and maintaining infection. In cross-species complementation assays, both HBc and WHV core (WHc) proteins supported all steps of intracellular replication of the heterologous virus while WHc, with or without the N-glycosylation sequons, failed to interact with HBV envelope proteins for virion secretion. Interestingly, WHc supported more efficiently intracellular cccDNA amplification than HBc in the context of either HBV or WHV. These findings reveal novel determinants of precore secretion and core functions and illustrate strong constraints during viral host adaptation resulting from their compact genome and extensive use of overlapping genes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1010739
JournalPLoS pathogens
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Parasitology
  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Virology


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