Hepatitis B virus (HBV) contains a partially double-stranded, relaxed circular (RC) DNA genome synthesized within a nucleocapsid (NC) in the host cell cytoplasm. The release of RC DNA from the NC, in an ill-defined process called uncoating, to the nucleus is required for its conversion to the covalently closed circular (CCC) DNA, the viral episome serving as the transcriptional template for all viral RNAs necessary for replication and, thus, essential for establishing and sustaining viral infection. In efforts to better understand uncoating, we analyzed HBV core (HBc) mutants that show various levels of nuclear CCC DNA but little to no cytoplasmic RC DNA. We found that RC DNA could be synthesized by these mutants outside the cell, but in contrast to the wild type (wt), the mutant NCs were unable to protect RC DNA from digestion by the endogenous nuclease(s) in cellular lysates or exogenous DNase. Subcellular fractionation suggested that the major RC DNA-degrading activity was membrane associated. Digestion with sequence-specific and nonspecific DNases revealed the exposure of specific regions of RC DNA from the mutant NC. Similarly, treatment of wt NCs with a core inhibitor known to increase CCC DNA by affecting uncoating also led to region-specific exposure of RC DNA. Furthermore, a subpopulation of untreated wild type (wt) mature NCs showed site-specific exposure of RC DNA as well. Competition between RC DNA degradation and its conversion to CCC DNA during NC uncoating thus likely plays an important role in the establishment and persistence of HBV infection and has implications for the development of capsid-targeted antivirals.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Insect Science