Human hepatitis delta virus has a single-stranded circular RNA genome that replicates by RNA-directed RNA synthesis. The virus encodes only a single protein, the delta antigen, which both is small (22 kDa) and lacks sequence homology to known RNA polymerases, suggesting that the virus employs a cellular polymerase for replication. Consistent with this suggestion, we have used homogenized nuclei from a human hepatoma cell line, HepG2, to demonstrate RNA-directed RNA synthesis from both genomic hepatitis delta virus RNA and its complement, the antigenomic RNA. RNA polymerase II was responsible for this transcription because the reaction was inhibited both by low doses of alpha-amanitin and by a monoclonal antibody specific for polymerase II. In addition, it was found that the majority of the RNA products were processed, presumably by self-cleavage and self-ligation, to produce covalently closed circular molecules.
It has been shown previously that during replication of the genome of human hepatitis delta virus (HDV), a specific nucleotide change occurs to eliminate the termination codon for the small delta antigen (G. Luo, M.
Luo and Taylor (J. Virol. 64:4321-4328, 1990) have previously shown that when, during RNA-directed DNA synthesis, a retroviral reverse transcriptase comes to a halt at the end of an RNA template, the associated RNase H produces a specific oligonucleotide that contains the 5' end of that template; in those studies the length of the oligonucleotide was predominantly 17 nucleotides. We have now investigated variables that might affect the formation and length of such a terminal oligonucleotide. We found small but significant variations in the length could be caused by the choice of reaction conditions and also the sources of reverse transcriptase and RNA template. Nevertheless, the general finding in all these situations was that RNase H acted at or about 14 to 18 nucleotides from the 5' end, thereby supporting the interpretation that in the reverse transcriptase, the cleavage site for the RNase H is held at around this distance behind the DNA polymerase activity. In other words, it appears that for the intact protein, the RNase H and reverse transcriptase activities may work in a coupled or coordinate manner. We also found that more than 80% of the residual 5' oligonucleotides remained base paired to the RNA-directed DNA product. Furthermore, under certain conditions, these short RNAs could act as efficient primers for an associated DNA-directed DNA synthesis in the reverse direction.
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