The mechanisms of hepatitis C virus (HCV) replication remain poorly understood, and the cellular factors required for HCV replication are yet to be completely defined. CD81 is known to mediate HCV entry. Our study uncovered an unexpected novel function of CD81 in the HCV life cycle that is important for HCV RNA replication. HCV replication occurred efficiently in infected cells with high levels of CD81 expression. In HCV-infected or RNA-transfected cells with low levels of CD81 expression, initial viral protein synthesis occurred normally, but efficient replication failed to proceed. The aborted replication could be restored by the transient transfection of a CD81 expression plasmid. CD81-dependent replication was demonstrated with both an HCV infectious cell culture and HCV replicon cells of genotypes 1b and 2a. We also showed that CD81 expression is positively correlated with the kinetics of HCV RNA synthesis but inversely related to the kinetics of viral protein production, suggesting that CD81 may control viral replication by directing viral RNA template function to RNA replication. Thus, CD81 may be necessary for the efficient replication of the HCV genome in addition to its role in viral entry.
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