Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a positive-strand RNA virus that remains one of the main contributors to chronic liver disease worldwide. Studies over the last 30 years have demonstrated that HCV contains a highly structured RNA genome and many of these structures play essential roles in the HCV life cycle. Despite the importance of riboregulation in this virus, most of the HCV RNA genome remains functionally unstudied. Here, we report a complete secondary structure map of the HCV RNA genome in vivo, which was studied in parallel with the secondary structure of the same RNA obtained in vitro. Our results show that HCV is folded extensively in the cellular context. By performing comprehensive structural analyses on both in vivo data and in vitro data, we identify compact and conserved secondary and tertiary structures throughout the genome. Genetic and evolutionary functional analyses demonstrate that many of these elements play important roles in the virus life cycle. In addition to providing a comprehensive map of RNA structures and riboregulatory elements in HCV, this work provides a resource for future studies aimed at identifying therapeutic targets and conducting further mechanistic studies on this important human pathogen. IMPORTANCE HCV has one of the most highly structured RNA genomes studied to date, and it is a valuable model system for studying the role of RNA structure in protein-coding genes. While previous studies have identified individual cases of regulatory RNA structures within the HCV genome, the full-length structure of the HCV genome has not been determined in vivo. Here, we present the complete secondary structure map of HCV determined both in cells and from corresponding transcripts generated in vitro. In addition to providing a comprehensive atlas of functional secondary structural elements throughout the genomic RNA, we identified a novel set of tertiary interactions and demonstrated their functional importance. In terms of broader implications, the pipeline developed in this study can be applied to other long RNAs, such as long noncoding RNAs. In addition, the RNA structural motifs characterized in this study broaden the repertoire of known riboregulatory elements.
Keywords: HCV; RNA folding; SHAPE; pseudoknot; viral replication.