Hepacivirus A (also known as nonprimate hepacivirus and equine hepacivirus) is a hepatotropic virus that can cause both transient and persistent infections in horses. The evolution of intrahost viral populations (quasispecies) has not been studied in detail for hepacivirus A, and its roles in immune evasion and persistence are unknown. To address these knowledge gaps, we first evaluated the envelope gene (E1 and E2) diversity of two different hepacivirus A strains (WSU and CU) in longitudinal blood samples from experimentally infected adult horses, juvenile horses (foals), and foals with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). Persistent infection with the WSU strain was associated with significantly greater quasispecies diversity than that observed in horses who spontaneously cleared infection (P = 0.0002) or in SCID foals (P < 0.0001). In contrast, the CU strain was able to persist despite significantly lower (P < 0.0001) and relatively static envelope diversity. These findings indicate that envelope diversity is a poor predictor of hepacivirus A infection outcomes and could be dependent on strain-specific factors. Next, entropy analysis was performed on all E1/E2 genes entered into GenBank. This analysis defined three novel hypervariable regions (HVRs) in E2, at residues 391 to 402 (HVR1), 450 to 461 (HVR2), and 550 to 562 (HVR3). For the experimentally infected horses, entropy analysis focusing on the HVRs demonstrated that these regions were under increased selective pressure during persistent infection. Increased diversity in the HVRs was also temporally associated with seroconversion in some horses, suggesting that these regions may be targets of neutralizing antibody and may play a role in immune evasion.IMPORTANCE Hepacivirus C (hepatitis C virus) is estimated to infect 150 million people worldwide and is a leading cause of cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. In contrast, its closest relative, hepacivirus A, causes relatively mild disease in horses and is frequently cleared. The relationship between quasispecies evolution and infection outcome has not been explored for hepacivirus A. To address this knowledge gap, we examined envelope gene diversity in horses with resolving and persistent infections. Interestingly, two strain-specific patterns of quasispecies diversity emerged. Persistence of the WSU strain was associated with increased quasispecies diversity and the accumulation of amino acid changes within three novel hypervariable regions following seroconversion. These findings provided evidence that envelope gene mutation is influenced by adaptive immune pressure and may contribute to hepacivirus persistence. However, the CU strain persisted despite relative evolutionary stasis, suggesting that some hepacivirus strains may use alternative mechanisms to persist in the host. Copyright © 2018 American Society for Microbiology.
Journal: Journal of virology