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The existence and functional importance of RNA secondary structure in the replication of positive-stranded RNA viruses is increasingly recognized. We applied several computational methods to detect RNA secondary structure in the coding region of hepatitis C virus (HCV), including thermodynamic prediction, calculation of free energy on folding, and a newly developed method to scan sequences for covariant sites and associated secondary structures using a parsimony-based algorithm. Each of the prediction methods provided evidence for complex RNA folding in the core- and NS5B-encoding regions of the genome. The positioning of covariant sites and associated predicted stem-loop structures coincided with thermodynamic predictions of RNA base pairing, and localized precisely in parts of the genome with marked suppression of variability at synonymous sites. Combined, there was evidence for a total of six evolutionarily conserved stem-loop structures in the NS5B-encoding region and two in the core gene. The virus most closely related to HCV, GB virus-B (GBV-B) also showed evidence for similar internal base pairing in its coding region, although predictions of secondary structures were limited by the absence of comparative sequence data for this virus. While the role(s) of stem-loops in the coding region of HCV and GBV-B are currently unknown, the structure predictions in this study could provide the starting point for functional investigations using recently developed self-replicating clones of HCV.

Type

Journal article

Journal

RNA

Publication Date

06/2002

Volume

8

Pages

824 - 841

Keywords

Base Sequence, Hepacivirus, Molecular Sequence Data, Nucleic Acid Conformation, Phylogeny, RNA, Viral, Thermodynamics