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Phylogeographic genetic diversity in the white sucker hepatitis B Virus across the Great Lakes Region and Alberta, Canada

February 12, 2021

Hepatitis B viruses belong to a family of circular, double-stranded DNA viruses that infect a range of organisms, with host responses that vary from mild infection to chronic infection and cancer. The white sucker hepatitis B virus (WSHBV) was first described in the white sucker (Catostomus commersonii), a freshwater teleost, and belongs to the genus Parahepadnavirus. At present, the host range of WSHBV and its impact on fish health are unknown, and neither genetic diversity nor association with fish health have been studied in any parahepadnavirus. Given the relevance of genomic diversity to disease outcome for the orthohepadnaviruses, we sought to characterize genomic variation in WSHBV and determine how it is structured among watersheds. We identified WSHBV-positive white sucker inhabiting tributaries of Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Erie (USA), and Lake Athabasca (Canada). Copy number in plasma and in liver tissue was estimated via qPCR. Templates from 27 virus-positive fish were amplified and sequenced using a primer-specific, circular long-range amplification method coupled with amplicon sequencing on the Illumina MiSeq. Phylogenetic analysis of the WSHBV genome identified phylogeographical clustering reminiscent of that observed with human hepatitis B virus genotypes. Notably, most non-synonymous substitutions were found to cluster in the pre-S/spacer overlap region, which is relevant for both viral entry and replication. The observed predominance of p1/s3 mutations in this region is indicative of adaptive change in the polymerase open reading frame (ORF), while, at the same time, the surface ORF is under purifying selection. Although the levels of variation we observed do not meet the criteria used to define sub/genotypes of human and avian hepadnaviruses, we identified geographically associated genome variation in the pre-S and spacer domain sufficient to define five WSHBV haplotypes. This study of WSHBV genetic diversity should facilitate the development of molecular markers for future identification of genotypes and provide evidence in future investigations of possible differential disease outcomes.