• Conservation of the HBV RNA element epsilon in nackednaviruses reveals ancient origin of protein-primed reverse transcription.

      Beck, Jürgen; Seitz, Stefan; Lauber, Chris; Nassal, Michael; TWINCORE, Zentrum für experimentelle und klinische Infektionsforschung GmbH,Feodor-Lynen Str. 7, 30625 Hannover, Germany. (Academy of Sciences, 2021-03-30)
      Hepadnaviruses, with the human hepatitis B virus as prototype, are small, enveloped hepatotropic DNA viruses which replicate by reverse transcription of an RNA intermediate. Replication is initiated by a unique protein-priming mechanism whereby a hydroxy amino acid side chain of the terminal protein (TP) domain of the viral polymerase (P) is extended into a short DNA oligonucleotide, which subsequently serves as primer for first-strand synthesis. A key component in the priming of reverse transcription is the viral RNA element epsilon, which contains the replication origin and serves as a template for DNA primer synthesis. Here, we show that recently discovered non-enveloped fish viruses, termed nackednaviruses [C. Lauber et al., Cell Host Microbe 22, 387-399 (2017)], employ a fundamentally similar replication mechanism despite their huge phylogenetic distance and major differences in genome organization and viral lifestyle. In vitro cross-priming studies revealed that few strategic nucleotide substitutions in epsilon enable site-specific protein priming by heterologous P proteins, demonstrating that epsilon is functionally conserved since the two virus families diverged more than 400 Mya. In addition, other cis elements crucial for the hepadnavirus-typical replication of pregenomic RNA into relaxed circular double-stranded DNA were identified at conserved positions in the nackednavirus genomes. Hence, the replication mode of both hepadnaviruses and nackednaviruses was already established in their Paleozoic common ancestor, making it a truly ancient and evolutionary robust principle of genome replication that is more widespread than previously thought.
    • HBV evolution and genetic variability: Impact on prevention, treatment and development of antivirals.

      Glebe, Dieter; Goldmann, Nora; Lauber, Chris; Seitz, Stefan; TWINCORE, Zentrum für experimentelle und klinische Infektionsforschung GmbH,Feodor-Lynen Str. 7, 30625 Hannover, Germany. (Elsevier, 2020-11-06)
      Hepatitis B virus (HBV) poses a major global health burden with 260 million people being chronically infected and 890,000 dying annually from complications in the course of the infection. HBV is a small enveloped virus with a reverse-transcribed DNA genome that infects hepatocytes and can cause acute and chronic infections of the liver. HBV is endemic in humans and apes representing the prototype member of the viral family Hepadnaviridae and can be divided into 10 genotypes. Hepadnaviruses have been found in all vertebrate classes and constitute an ancient viral family that descended from non-enveloped progenitors more than 360 million years ago. The de novo emergence of the envelope protein gene was accompanied with the liver-tropism and resulted in a tight virus-host association. The oldest HBV genomes so far have been isolated from human remains of the Bronze Age and the Neolithic (~7000 years before present). Despite the remarkable stability of the hepadnaviral genome over geological eras, HBV is able to rapidly evolve within an infected individual under pressure of the immune response or during antiviral treatment. Treatment with currently available antivirals blocking intracellular replication of HBV allows controlling of high viremia and improving liver health during long-term therapy of patients with chronic hepatitis B (CHB), but they are not sufficient to cure the disease. New therapy options that cover all HBV genotypes and emerging viral variants will have to be developed soon. In addition to the antiviral treatment of chronically infected patients, continued efforts to expand the global coverage of the currently available HBV vaccine will be one of the key factors for controlling the rising global spread of HBV. Certain improvements of the vaccine (e.g. inclusion of PreS domains) could counteract known problems such as low or no responsiveness of certain risk groups and waning anti-HBs titers leading to occult infections, especially with HBV genotypes E or F. But even with an optimal vaccine and a cure for hepatitis B, global eradication of HBV would be difficult to achieve because of an existing viral reservoir in primates and bats carrying closely related hepadnaviruses with zoonotic potential.