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ABSTRACTHepatitis B virus (HBV) infection is of global importance with over 2 billion people exposed to the virus during their lifetime and at risk of progressive liver disease, cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. HBV is a member of the hepadnaviridae family that replicates via episomal copies of a covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) genome. The chromatinization of this small viral genome, with overlapping open reading frames and regulatory elements, suggests an important role for epigenetic pathways to regulate viral transcription. The chromatin-organising transcriptional insulator protein CCCTC-binding factor (CTCF) has been reported to regulate transcription in a diverse range of viruses. We identified two conserved CTCF binding sites in the HBV genome within Enhancer I and chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) analysis demonstrated an enrichment of CTCF binding to integrated or episomal copies of the viral genome. siRNA knockdown of CTCF results in a significant increase in pre-genomic RNA levels in de novo infected HepG2 cells and those supporting episomal HBV DNA replication. Furthermore, mutation of these sites in HBV DNA minicircles abrogated CTCF binding and increased pre-genomic RNA levels, providing evidence of a direct role for CTCF in repressing HBV transcription.IMPORTANCEHepatitis B virus (HBV) is a global cause of liver disease. At least 300 million individuals are chronically infected with HBV, frequently leading to life-threatening liver cirrhosis and cancer. Following viral entry, HBV DNA enters the nucleus and is bound by histones that are subject to epigenetic modification. The HBV genome contains two enhancer elements that stimulate viral transcription but the interplay between the viral enhancers and promoters is not fully understood. We have identified the host cell protein CCCTC binding factor (CTCF) as a repressor of HBV gene expression. CTCF binds to the HBV genome within Enhancer I and represses transcription of pre-genomic RNA. These findings provide new insights into how HBV transcription is regulated and show a new role for CTCF as a transcriptional insulator by associating with the viral genome between Enhancer I and the downstream basal core promoter.

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