A characteristic of many positive-strand RNA viruses is that, whilst replication of the viral genome is dependent on the expression of the majority of non-structural proteins in cis, virus particle formation can occur when most or all of the structural proteins are co-expressed in trans. Making use of a recently identified hepatitis C virus (HCV) isolate (JFH1) that can be propagated in tissue culture, this study sought to establish whether this is also the case for hepaciviruses. Stable cell lines containing one of two bicistronic replicons derived from the JFH1 isolate were generated that expressed non-structural proteins NS3-5B or NS2-5B. Release and transmission of these replicons to naïve Huh7 cells could then be demonstrated when baculovirus transduction was used to express the HCV proteins absent from the subgenomic replicons. Transmission could be blocked by a neutralizing antibody targeted at the E2 envelope protein, consistent with this phenomenon occurring via trans-encapsidation of replicon RNA into virus-like particles. Transmission was also dependent on expression of NS2, which was most effective at promoting virus particle formation when expressed in cis on the replicon RNA compared with in trans via baculovirus delivery. Density gradient analysis of the particles revealed the presence of a broad infectious peak between 1.06 and 1.11 g ml(-1), comparable to that seen when propagating full-length virus in tissue culture. In summary, the trans-encapsidation system described offers a complementary and safer approach to study HCV particle formation and transmission in tissue culture
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