Rapid High-Yield Transient Expression of Swine Hepatitis E ORF2 Capsid Proteins in Nicotiana benthamiana Plants and Production of Chimeric Hepatitis E Virus-Like Particles Bearing the M2e Influenza Epitope.

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The Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is a causative agent of acute hepatitis, mainly transmitted by the fecal-oral route or zoonotic. Open reading frame (ORF) 2 encodes the viral capsid protein, which is essential for virion assembly, host interaction, and inducing neutralizing antibodies. In this study, we investigated whether full-length and N- and C-terminally modified versions of the capsid protein transiently expressed in N. benthamiana plants could assemble into highly-immunogenic, virus-like particles (VLPs). We also assessed whether such VLPs can act as a carrier of foreign immunogenic epitopes, such as the highly-conserved M2e peptide from the Influenza virus. Plant codon-optimized HEV ORF2 capsid genes were constructed in which the nucleotides coding the N-terminal, the C-terminal, or both parts of the protein were deleted. The M2e peptide was inserted into the P2 loop after the residue Gly556 of HEV ORF2 protein by gene fusion, and three different chimeric constructs were designed. Plants expressed all versions of the HEV capsid protein up to 10% of total soluble protein (TSP), including the chimeras, but only the capsid protein consisting of aa residues 110 to 610 (HEV 110-610) and chimeric M2 HEV 110-610 spontaneously assembled in higher order structures. The chimeric VLPs assembled into particles with 22-36 nm in diameter and specifically reacted with the anti-M2e antibody.