The hypervariable region 1 (HVR1) of the putative envelope protein E2 of hepatitis C virus (HCV) contains a principal neutralization epitope, and anti-HVR1 antibodies have been shown to possess protective activity in ex vivo neutralization experiments. However, the high rate of variability of this antigenic fragment may play a major role in the mechanism of escape from host immune response and might represent a major obstacle to developing an HCV vaccine. Thus, even if direct experimental evidence of the neutralizing potential of anti-HVR1 antibodies by active immunization is still missing, the generation of a vaccine candidate with a cross-reactive potential would be highly desirable. To overcome the problem of HVR1 variability, we have engineered cross-reactive HVR1 peptide mimics (mimotopes) at the N terminus of the E2 ectodomain in plasmid vectors suitable for genetic immunization. High levels of secreted and biologically active mimotope/E2 chimeras were obtained by transient transfection of these plasmids in cultured cells. All plasmids elicited anti-HVR1 antibodies in mice and rabbits with some of them leading to a cross-reacting response against many HVR1 variants from natural isolates. Epitope mapping revealed a pattern of reactivity similar to that induced by HCV infection. In contrast, plasmids encoding naturally occurring HVR1 sequences displayed either on full-length E2 in the context of the whole HCV structural region, or on a soluble, secreted E2 ectodomain, did not induce a cross-reacting anti-HVR1 response.