The X protein (HBX) of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) has been shown to be important for the establishment of HBV infection in vivo. Our previous studies suggested that interaction of HBX with the proteasome complex may underlie the pleiotropic functions of HBX. In this study, we generated a series of woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV) X mutants, including mutants of the domain interacting with the proteasome, and studied their infectivity in woodchucks. Many of the mutants were defective in transactivation but none of them were completely replication defective in vitro. In vivo, all the wild-type and some X mutant-transfected animals demonstrated evidence of infection with anti-WHc and/or anti-WHs seroconversion. Most of the wild-type- and X mutant-transfected animals had transient viremia. Some animals were later challenged with infectious WHV. Animals inoculated with X mutants, including those with no serologic evidence of infection, were protected from the challenge, suggesting previous infection with resulting protective immunity. Our study demonstrates that the previously described functional domains of HBX are biologically important and the X-defective mutants, possibly as attenuated viruses, are not completely replication defective in vivo.
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