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J Virol. 1993 August; 67(8): 4886–4895.
PMCID: PMC237876

Translation of the hepatitis B virus P gene by ribosomal scanning as an alternative to internal initiation.


The hepatitis B virus (HBV) P gene which encodes the reverse transcriptase and other proteins required for replication is expressed on the bicistronic mRNA pregenome which also encodes the capsid protein in its first cistron. Recent results have suggested that the hepadnaviral P gene is translated by internal entry of ribosomes upstream from the P gene, in the overlapping C gene. Using a reporter gene fused to the HBV C or P gene, we demonstrate that the C sequence does not allow internal initiation of translation. Alternatively, our results support a model in which the HBV P gene is translated by ribosomes which scan from the capped extremity of the bicistronic mRNA pregenome. The mechanism by which the ribosomes scan past four AUGs before they initiate translation at the P AUG was analyzed. Our results show that these AUGs are skipped via two mechanisms: leaky scanning on AUGs in a weak or suboptimal initiation context and translation of an out-of-C-frame minicistron followed by reinitiation at P AUG. The minicistron translation allows ribosomes to bypass an AUG in a favorable context that would otherwise be used as a start codon for translation of a truncated capsid protein. Our results suggest that this elaborated scanning mechanism permits the coordinate expression of the HBV C and P genes on the viral bicistronic mRNA pregenome.

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