Variable and hypervariable domains are found in the regions of HCV corresponding to the flavivirus envelope and NS1 proteins and the pestivirus envelope glycoproteins.
Based on the flavi- and pestivirus model of genome organization for the hepatitis C virus (HCV) (1-5), the nucleotide and deduced amino acid sequences of the putative envelope (E1) and the junction between the E1 and NS1/envelope 2 (E2) region from six different human isolates of HCV were compared with the nucleotide and predicted amino acid sequences of the prototype hepatitis C virus (HCV-1) (5). The overall percentage of nucleotide and amino acid changes among all six isolates, including HCV-1, from nucleotide 713 to 1630 (amino acid 129 to 437) was between 3 and 7%, which is comparable to that seen in some flaviviruses (6-8). An analysis of the number of nucleotide and deduced amino acid sequence changes among all six isolates and HCV-1 revealed a moderately variable domain of approximately 40 amino acids in the E1 region and a hypervariable domain (Region V) of approximately 28 amino acids, which is directly downstream from a putative signal peptide sequence, in the junction between E1 and NS1/E2. A similar hypervariable domain is not found in the C-terminus of the envelope polypeptide or in the N-terminus of the NS1 polypeptide domain of the flaviviruses. These findings suggest that the mature NS1/E2 polypeptide starts about amino acid 380 and that the NS1/E2 domain may correspond to a second envelope glycoprotein as in the case of the pestivirus. The observed heterogeneity in the putative structural proteins of HCV may have important ramifications for future vaccine development.