Role of Hepatitis B virus capsid phosphorylation in nucleocapsid disassembly and covalently closed circular DNA formation

PLoS Pathog. 2020 Mar 30;16(3):e1008459. doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1008459. eCollection 2020 Mar.


Hepatitis B virus (HBV) delivers a partially double-stranded, relaxed circular (RC) DNA genome in complete virions to the host cell nucleus for conversion to the covalently closed circular (CCC) DNA, which establishes and sustains viral infection. An overlength pregenomic RNA (pgRNA) is then transcribed from CCC DNA and packaged into immature nucleocapsids (NCs) by the viral core (HBc) protein. pgRNA is reverse transcribed to produce RC DNA in mature NCs, which are then enveloped and secreted as complete virions, or delivered to the nucleus to replenish the nuclear CCC DNA pool. RC DNA, whether originating from extracellular virions or intracellular mature NCs, must be released upon NC disassembly (uncoating) for CCC DNA formation. HBc is known to undergo dynamic phosphorylation and dephosphorylation at its C-terminal domain (CTD) to facilitate pgRNA packaging and reverse transcription. Here, two putative phosphorylation sites in the HBc N-terminal domain (NTD), S44 and S49, were targeted for genetic and biochemical analysis to assess their potential roles in viral replication. The NTD mutant that mimics the non-phosphorylated state (N2A) was competent in all steps of viral replication tested from capsid assembly, pgRNA packaging, reverse transcription, to virion secretion, except for a decrease in CCC DNA formation. On the other hand, the phosphor-mimetic mutant N2E showed a defect in the early step of pgRNA packaging but enhanced the late step of mature NC uncoating and consequently, increased CCC DNA formation. N2E also enhanced phosphorylation in CTD and possibly elsewhere in HBc. Furthermore, inhibition of the cyclin-dependent kinase 2 (CDK2), which is packaged into viral capsids, could block CCC DNA formation. These results prompted us to propose a model whereby rephosphorylation of HBc at both NTD and CTD by the packaged CDK2, following CTD dephosphorylation during NC maturation, facilitates uncoating and CCC DNA formation by destabilizing mature NCs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase 2 / genetics
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase 2 / metabolism
  • DNA, Circular / genetics
  • DNA, Circular / metabolism*
  • DNA, Viral / genetics
  • DNA, Viral / metabolism*
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Hep G2 Cells
  • Hepatitis B / genetics
  • Hepatitis B / metabolism*
  • Hepatitis B virus / genetics
  • Hepatitis B virus / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Nucleocapsid / genetics
  • Nucleocapsid / metabolism*
  • Phosphorylation
  • Viral Core Proteins / genetics
  • Viral Core Proteins / metabolism
  • Virus Uncoating*


  • DNA, Circular
  • DNA, Viral
  • Viral Core Proteins
  • CDK2 protein, human
  • Cyclin-Dependent Kinase 2