Affiliations: Laboratory Branch, Division of Viral Hepatitis, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA, USA
Note:  Corresponding author: D.S. Campo, Laboratory Branch, Division of Viral Hepatitis, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Rd, MS A-33, Atlanta, GA 30300, USA. Tel.: +1 404 639 2342; Fax: +1 404 639 1563; E-mail: [email protected]
Abstract: The detection of compensatory mutations that abrogate negative fitness effects of drug-resistance and vaccine-escape mutations indicates the important role of epistatic connectivity in evolution of viruses, especially under the strong selection pressures. Mapping of epistatic connectivity in the form of coordinated substitutions should help to characterize molecular mechanisms shaping viral evolution and provides a tool for the development of novel anti-viral drugs and vaccines. We analyzed coordinated variation among amino acid sites in 370 the hepatitis B virus (HBV) polymerase sequences using Bayesian networks. Among the HBV polymerase domains the spacer domain separating terminal protein from the reverse-transcriptase domain, showed the highest network centrality. Coordinated substitutions preserve the hydrophobicity and charge of Spacer. Maximum likelihood estimates of codon selection showed that Spacer contains the highest number of positively selected sites. Identification of 67% of the domain lacking an ordered structure suggests that Spacer belongs to the class of intrinsically disordered domains and proteins whose crucial functional role in the regulation of transcription, translation and cellular signal transduction has only recently been recognized. Spacer plays a central role in the epistatic network associating substitutions across the HBV genome, including those conferring viral virulence, drug resistance and vaccine escape. The data suggest that Spacer is extensively involved in coordination of HBV evolution.