Genetic and catalytic efficiency structure of an HCV protease quasispecies


  • Potential conflict of interest: Nothing to report.


The HCV nonstructural protein (NS)3/4A serine protease is not only involved in viral polyprotein processing but also efficiently blocks the retinoic-acid–inducible gen I and Toll-like receptor 3 signaling pathways and contributes to virus persistence by enabling HCV to escape the interferon antiviral response. Therefore, the NS3/4A protease has emerged as an ideal target for the control of the disease and the development of new anti-HCV agents. Here, we analyzed, at a high resolution (approximately 100 individual clones), the HCV NS3 protease gene quasispecies from three infected individuals. Nucleotide heterogeneity of 49%, 84%, and 91% were identified, respectively, which created a dense net that linked different parts of the viral population. Minority variants having mutations involved in the acquisition of resistance to current NS3/4A protease inhibitors (PIs) were also found. A vast diversity of different catalytic efficiencies could be distinguished. Importantly, 67% of the analyzed enzymes displayed a detectable protease activity. Moreover, 35% of the minority individual variants showed similar or better catalytic efficiency than the master (most abundant) enzyme. Nevertheless, and in contrast to minority variants, master enzymes always displayed a high catalytic efficiency when different viral polyprotein cleavage sites were tested. Finally, genetic and catalytic efficiency differences were observed when the 3 quasispecies were compared, suggesting that different selective forces were acting in different infected individuals. Conclusion: The rugged HCV protease quasispecies landscape should be able to react to environmental changes that may threaten its survival. (HEPATOLOGY 2007;45:899–910.)