Background: Hepatitis C virus (HCV) has been the subject of intense research and clinical investigation as its major role in human disease has emerged. Previous and recent studies have suggested a diversification of type 1 HCV in the South American region. The degree of genetic variation among HCV strains circulating in Bolivia and Colombia is currently unknown. In order to get insight into these matters, we performed a phylogenetic analysis of HCV 5' non-coding region (5'NCR) sequences from strains isolated in Bolivia, Colombia and Uruguay, as well as available comparable sequences of HCV strains isolated in South America.
Methods: Phylogenetic tree analysis was performed using the neighbor-joining method under a matrix of genetic distances established under the Kimura-two parameter model. Signature pattern analysis, which identifies particular sites in nucleic acid alignments of variable sequences that are distinctly representative relative to a background set, was performed using the method of Korber & Myers, as implemented in the VESPA program. Prediction of RNA secondary structures was done by the method of Zuker & Turner, as implemented in the mfold program.
Results: Phylogenetic tree analysis of HCV strains isolated in the South American region revealed the presence of a distinct genetic lineage inside genotype 1. Signature pattern analysis revealed that the presence of this lineage is consistent with the presence of a sequence signature in the 5'NCR of HCV strains isolated in South America. Comparisons of these results with the ones found for Europe or North America revealed that this sequence signature is characteristic of the South American region.
Conclusion: Phylogentic analysis revealed the presence of a sequence signature in the 5'NCR of type 1 HCV strains isolated in South America. This signature is frequent enough in type 1 HCV populations circulating South America to be detected in a phylogenetic tree analysis as a distinct type 1 sub-population. The coexistence of distinct type 1 HCV subpopulations is consistent with quasispecies dynamics, and suggests that multiple coexisting subpopulations may allow the virus to adapt to its human host populations.