Hepatitis C (HCV) is the first virus to be discovered by molecular cloning without direct use of biological or biophysical methods. HCV was first recognised in 1974 as non-A, non-B (NANB) hepatitis resulting from blood transfusions. It took almost 15 years to identify it successfully--by detecting a clone in a library of cDNA prepared from the nucleic acids extracted from plasma known to be infectious for chimpanzees. The clone was derived from a positive-sense RNA of about 10,000 nucleotides, with a long open reading frame encoding for a polyprotein of about 3000 amino acids. The structure of the RNA and the encoded polyprotein had properties similar to known flaviviruses and pestiviruses. Functions of viral proteins produced by proteolytic cleavage of the polyprotein are estimated by analogy with known viruses of similar genomic organisation. Each of the HCV proteins has been produced in recombinant organisms and used as an antigen in immunoassays to investigate serological responses during the course of infection. Seroconversions to both structural and non-structural antigens are observed during the course of disease but typical diagnostic serological patterns have not yet evolved. Immunoassays for HCV antibodies reacting with recombinant antigens are used widely for screening blood donations and for studying the epidemiology of HCV infection. Comparisons of the nucleic acid sequences from different isolates of HCV have shown considerable variability throughout the genome. The importance of this genomic heterogeneity will be a challenging problem for the future.
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