Genetic heterogeneity of hepatitis C virus: quasispecies and genotypes

Semin Liver Dis. 1995 Feb;15(1):41-63. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-1007262.


Worldwide, HCV is a major etiologic agent of chronic hepatitis that may lead to the development of liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Thus, significant morbidity and mortality is caused by HCV infection and effective control measures against the spread of this virus are needed. Originally, the extent of genetic heterogeneity of HCV was not fully appreciated. However, the breadth of the genetic heterogeneity of HCV is great, and this may have important implications in diagnosis, pathogenesis, treatment, and vaccine development. In an infected individual the HCV genome population circulates as a quasispecies distribution of closely related yet heterogeneous RNA sequences centered around one dominant sequence. The dominant sequence, as well as the consensus sequence, changes sequentially during the course of the infection. A hypervariable region (HVR1) within one of the envelope proteins of HCV (E2) evolves very rapidly. Patients infected with HCV mount a humoral immune response to epitopes of HVR1. However, sequential changes in the consensus sequence of HVR1 during infection result in the generation of variants that are not recognized by preexisting antibodies. This might represent a mechanism by which HCV evades host immune surveillance and establishes and maintains persistent infection. It will be important to determine whether HVR1 of HCV, as was found for the V3 loop of HIV, contains epitopes that elicit neutralizing antibodies against HCV. Furthermore, it will be important to determine whether the quasispecies nature of HCV helps the virus evade the cytotoxic T-cell response of the host. Analysis of complete or partial HCV genomic sequences revealed that HCV exists as multiple, distinct genotypes. A total of nine major genetic groups and at least 30 subgroups have been recognized. To evaluate the current classification of HCV genotypes, we performed phylogenetic analyses of complete and partial nucleotide sequences from isolates that represent all published variants of HCV. Analysis of complete HCV sequences, which represent three major genetic groups, supports the currently used genotype classification scheme. However, analysis of the partial genomic regions (ie, C, E1, and NS5b) of HCV isolates that represent all recognized variants of HCV demonstrates that the genetic relatedness among some of the genotypes was not equivalent in the different gene regions. Furthermore, the distinction among isolates, subtypes, and types of HCV was not always clear. This finding might reflect the shortcomings of analyzing only limited gene regions or may reflect the wide spectrum of genetic variation of HCV.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genotype
  • Hepacivirus / classification
  • Hepacivirus / genetics*
  • Hepacivirus / immunology
  • Humans
  • Phylogeny
  • Viral Hepatitis Vaccines


  • Viral Hepatitis Vaccines