The physical properties of hepatitis C virus (HCV) particles were determined by ultracentrifugation on 20-60% isopycnic sucrose density gradients. We report that (i) two populations of HCV particles were found in the sera of patients with chronic HCV infection [at high density (1.186-1.213 g/ml) and at low density (1.099-1.127 g/ml)], (ii) virus particles with high density values were associated with immunoglobulin, and (iii) virus particles with low density values accumulated base changes within a hypervariable region (HVR) of the E2 envelope domain of the RNA genome. The results indicate that base changes within the HVR of E2 lead to the accumulation of immunoglobulin-free virus particles. Therefore, these findings imply that persistent HCV infection is established as a consequence of sequence variation in the E2 envelope domain.
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