Hepatitis delta virus requires a helper function from hepatitis B virus for packaging, release, and infection of hepatocytes. The assembly of large delta antigen (HDAg) is mediated by copackaging with the small surface antigen of hepatitis B virus (HBsAg), and the assembly of small HDAg requires interactions with large HDAg. To examine the molecular mechanisms by which small HBsAg, large HDAg, and small HDAg interact, we have established a virion assembly system in COS7 cells by cotransfecting plasmids encoding the small HBsAg, the small HDAg, and large HDAg mutants. Results indicate that sequences within the C-terminal 19-amino-acid domain flanking the Cxxx isoprenylation motif are important for the assembly of large HDAg. In addition, a large HDAg mutant bearing extra sequences separating the C-terminal 19-amino-acid domain from the common regions of the small and large HDAgs is capable, like the wild-type large HDAg, of copackaging with small HBsAg. The ability of assembly is also demonstrated for a large HDAg mutant from which nuclear localization signals have been removed. Furthermore, a cryptic signal within the N-terminal 50 amino acid residues other than the putative N-terminal coiled-coil structure and a subdomain between amino acid residues 50 and 65 of the large HDAg are important for the assembly of small HDAg as well as the trans-dominant negative regulation of large HDAg in hepatitis delta virus replication
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