In natural infection, hepatitis B virus (HBV) core protein (HBc) accumulates frequent mutations. The most frequent HBc variant in chronic hepatitis B patients is mutant 97L, changing from an isoleucine or phenylalanine to a leucine (L) at HBc amino acid 97. One dogma in the HBV research field is that wild type HBV secretes predominantly virions containing mature double-stranded DNA genomes. Immature genomes, containing single-stranded RNA or DNA, do not get efficiently secreted until reaching genome maturity. Interestingly, HBc variant 97L does not follow this dogma in virion secretion. Instead, it exhibits an immature secretion phenotype, which preferentially secretes virions containing immature genomes. Other aberrant behaviors in virion secretion were also observed in different naturally occurring HBc variants. A hydrophobic pocket around amino acid 97 was identified by bioinformatics, genetic analysis, and cryo-EM. We postulated that this hydrophobic pocket could mediate the transduction of the genome maturation signal for envelopment from the capsid interior to its surface. Virion morphogenesis must involve interactions between HBc, envelope proteins (HBsAg) and host factors, such as components of ESCRT (endosomal sorting complex required for transport). Immature secretion can be offset by compensatory mutations, occurring at other positions in HBc or HBsAg. Recently, we demonstrated in mice that the persistence of intrahepatic HBV DNA is related to virion secretion regulated by HBV genome maturity. HBV virion secretion could be an antiviral drug target.
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