Locatelli M. et al.
BACKGROUND \& AIMS: Upon Hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, partially double stranded viral DNA converts into a covalently-closed-circular chromatinized episomal structure (cccDNA). This form represents the long-lived genomic reservoir responsible for viral persistence in the infected liver. While the involvement of host cell DNA damage response in cccDNA formation has been established, this work aims at investigating the yet to be identified histone dynamics on cccDNA during early phases of infection in human hepatocytes. METHODS: Detailed studies of host chromatin-associated factors were performed in cell culture models of natural infection, i.e. HepG2 cells and primary human hepatocytes infected with HBV, by cccDNA-specific chromatin immunoprecipitation and loss of function experiments during early kinetics of viral minichromosome establishment and onset of viral transcription. RESULTS: Our results show that cccDNA formation requires the deposition of the histone variant H3.3 via the histone regulator A (HIRA)-dependent pathway. This occurs simultaneously with repair of the cccDNA precursor and independently from de novo viral protein expression. Moreover, H3.3 in its S31 phosphorylated form appears to be the preferential H3 variant found on transcriptionally active cccDNA in infected cultured cells and human livers. HIRA depletion after cccDNA pool establishment demonstrated that HIRA recruitment is required for viral transcription and RNA production. CONCLUSIONS: Altogether, we show a crucial role for HIRA in the interplay between HBV genome and host cellular machinery to ensure the formation and active transcription of the viral minichromosome in infected hepatocytes.