Replication and infectivity of hepatitis C virus (HCV) with a defective genome is ambiguous. We molecularly cloned 38 HCV isolates with defective genomes from 18 patient sera. The structural regions were widely deleted, with the 5′ untranslated, core, and NS3-NS5B regions preserved. All of the deletions were in frame, indicating that they are translatable to the authentic terminus. Phylogenetic analyses showed self-replication of the defective genomes independent of full genomes. We generated a defective genome of chimeric HCV to mimic the defective isolate in the serum. By using this, we demonstrated for the first time that the defective genome, as it is circulating in the blood, can be encapsidated as an infectious particle by trans complementation of the structural proteins.
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