Treatment of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection with interferon (IFN)- alpha and ribavirin combination therapy results in superior clinical antiviral responses than does monotherapy with IFN. To explore the virological basis of the effects of combination therapy, we analyzed the effects of IFN- alpha and ribavirin, singly and in combination, on intracellular HCV replication by use of an HCV replicon system. A new replicon that expressed a selectable chimeric reporter protein comprising firefly luciferase and neomycin phosphotransferase was constructed. The replicon was highly sensitive to IFN-alpha (50% inhibitory concentration [IC(50)], 0.5 U/mL). Therapy with ribavirin showed weak suppression of HCV replication at a lower concentration (IC(50), 126 mu mol/L). The nucleotide sequence diversity of the replicon was increased significantly by therapy with ribavirin, suggesting that error-prone HCV replication was induced by the drug. Importantly, use of a clinically achievable concentration of ribavirin (approximately 10 mu mol/L) in combination with IFN showed strong synergistic inhibitory effects on HCV replication. Our results suggest that the direct effects of ribavirin on the genetic stability of the HCV subgenome and its synergistic action combined, with IFN-alpha, may explain the improved clinical responses to combination therapy.