Broad and Dynamic Diversification of Infectious Hepatitis C Virus in a Cell Culture Environment

Gallego, I., Sorie, M. E., García Crespo, C., Chen, Q., Martínez Barragan, P., Khalfaoui, S., Martínez González, B., Sánchez Martín, I., Palacios Blanco, I., De Ávila, A. I., García Cehic, D., Esteban, J. I., Gómez, J., Briones, C., Gregori, J., Quer, J., Perales, C., Domingo, E. (2020). Broad and Dynamic Diversification of Infectious Hepatitis C Virus in a Cell Culture Environment. Journal of Virology 94, 6 DOI: 10.1128/JVI.01856-19

Previous studies documented that long-term hepatitis C virus (HCV) replication in human hepatoma Huh-7.5 cells resulted in viral fitness gain, expansion of the mutant spectrum, and several phenotypic alterations. In the present work, we show that mutational waves (changes in frequency of individual mutations) occurred continuously and became more prominent as the virus gained fitness. They were accompanied by an increasing proportion of heterogeneous genomic sites that affected 1 position in the initial HCV population and 19 and 69 positions at passages 100 and 200, respectively. Analysis of biological clones of HCV showed that these dynamic events affected infectious genomes, since part of the fluctuating mutations became incorporated into viable genomes. While 17 mutations were scored in 3 biological clones isolated from the initial population, the number reached 72 in 3 biological clones from the population at passage 200. Biological clones differed in their responses to antiviral inhibitors, indicating a phenotypic impact of viral dynamics. Thus, HCV adaptation to a specific constant environment (cell culture without external influences) broadens the mutant repertoire and does not focus the population toward a limited number of dominant genomes. A retrospective examination of mutant spectra of foot-and-mouth disease virus passaged in cell cultures suggests a parallel behavior here described for HCV. We propose that virus diversification in a constant environment has its basis in the availability of multiple alternative mutational pathways for fitness gain. This mechanism of broad diversification should also apply to other replicative systems characterized by high mutation rates and large population sizes.

IMPORTANCE The study shows that extensive replication of an RNA virus in a constant biological environment does not limit exploration of sequence space and adaptive options. There was no convergence toward a restricted set of adapted genomes. Mutational waves and mutant spectrum broadening affected infectious genomes. Therefore, profound modifications of mutant spectrum composition and consensus sequence diversification are not exclusively dependent on environmental alterations or the intervention of population bottlenecks.

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