Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is known to circulate persistently in vivo as a complex population of different but closely related viral variants. To understand the quasispecies nature of HCV, we performed genetic analysis of intracellular HCV RNAs obtained in long-term cell culture of genome-length HCV-RNA-replicating cells. The results revealed that genetic mutations in HCV RNAs accumulated in a time-dependent manner, and that the mutation rates of HCV RNAs were 3.5-4.8 × 10-3 base substitutions/site/year. The mutation rates of nonstructural regions that are essential for RNA replication were lower than those of structural regions. The genetic diversity of HCVs was also enlarged in a time-dependent manner. Furthermore, we found that the GC content of HCV RNA was increased in a time-dependent manner. These results suggest that an HCV-RNA-replicating cell culture system would be useful for analysis of the evolutionary dynamics and variations of HCV.
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