Molecular Determinants of Mouse Adaptation of Rat Hepacivirus

Raphael Wolfisberg, Kenn Holmbeck, Eva Billerbeck, Caroline E Thorselius, Mariana N Batista, Ulrik Fahnøe, Emma A Lundsgaard, Matthew J Kennedy, Louise Nielsen, Charles M Rice, Jens Bukh, Troels K H Scheel


The lack of robust immunocompetent animal models for hepatitis C virus (HCV) impedes vaccine development and studies of immune responses. Norway rat hepacivirus (NrHV) infection in rats shares HCV-defining characteristics, including hepatotropism, chronicity, immune responses, and aspects of liver pathology. To exploit genetic variants and research tools, we previously adapted NrHV to prolonged infection in laboratory mice. Through intrahepatic RNA inoculation of molecular clones of the identified variants, we here characterized four mutations in the envelope proteins responsible for mouse adaptation, including one disrupting a glycosylation site. These mutations led to high-titer viremia, similar to that observed in rats. In 4-week-old mice, infection was cleared after around 5 weeks compared to 2 to 3 weeks for nonadapted virus. In contrast, the mutations led to persistent but attenuated infection in rats, and they partially reverted, accompanied by an increase in viremia. Attenuated infection in rat but not mouse hepatoma cells demonstrated that the characterized mutations were indeed mouse adaptive rather than generally adaptive across species and that species determinants and not immune interactions were responsible for attenuation in rats. Unlike persistent NrHV infection in rats, acute resolving infection in mice was not associated with the development of neutralizing antibodies. Finally, infection of scavenger receptor B-I (SR-BI) knockout mice suggested that adaptation to mouse SR-BI was not a primary function of the identified mutations. Rather, the virus may have adapted to lower dependency on SR-BI, thereby potentially surpassing species-specific differences. In conclusion, we identified specific determinants of NrHV mouse adaptation, suggesting species-specific interactions during entry. IMPORTANCE A prophylactic vaccine is required to achieve the World Health Organization's objective for hepatitis C virus elimination as a serious public health threat. However, the lack of robust immunocompetent animal models supporting hepatitis C virus infection impedes vaccine development as well as studies of immune responses and viral evasion. Hepatitis C virus-related hepaciviruses were discovered in a number of animal species and provide useful surrogate infection models. Norway rat hepacivirus is of particular interest, as it enables studies in rats, an immunocompetent and widely used small laboratory animal model. Its adaptation to robust infection also in laboratory mice provides access to a broader set of mouse genetic lines and comprehensive research tools. The presented mouse-adapted infectious clones will be of utility for reverse genetic studies, and the Norway rat hepacivirus mouse model will facilitate studies of hepacivirus infection for in-depth characterization of virus-host interactions, immune responses, and liver pathology.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Virology
Pages (from-to)e0181222
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 27 Mar 2023


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