What is Hepatitis B?

Hepatitis B is a disease caused by hepatitis B virus (HBV) which infects the liver of hominoidae, including humans, and causes an inflammation called hepatitis. Originally known as "serum hepatitis", the disease has caused epidemics in parts of Asia and Africa, and it is endemic in China. About a third of the world's population, more than 2 billion people, have been infected with the hepatitis B virus. Transmission of hepatitis B virus results from exposure to infectious blood or body fluids containing blood.

Schematic of hepatitis B virus
Schematic of hepatitis B virus

As of 2004, there are an estimated 350 million HBV infected individuals worldwide. National and regional prevalence ranges from over 10% in Asia to under 0.5% in the United States and northern Europe. Routes of infection include vertical transmission (such as through childbirth), early life horizontal transmission (bites, lesions, and sanitary habits), and adult horizontal transmission (sexual contact, intravenous drug use).

The primary method of transmission reflects the prevalence of chronic HBV infection in a given area. In low prevalence areas such as the continental United States and Western Europe, injection drug abuse and unprotected sex are the primary methods, although other factors may also be important.

In moderate prevalence areas, which include Eastern Europe, Russia, and Japan, where 2–7% of the population is chronically infected, the disease is predominantly spread among children. In high prevalence areas such as China and South East Asia, transmission during childbirth is most common, although in other areas of high endemicity such as Africa, transmission during childhood is a significant factor. The prevalence of chronic HBV infection in areas of high endemicity is at least 8%.

The acute illness causes liver inflammation, vomiting, jaundice and—rarely—death. Chronic hepatitis B may eventually cause liver cirrhosis and liver cancer—a fatal disease with very poor response to current chemotherapy. The infection is preventable by vaccination.

Hepatitis B virus is an hepadnavirus—''hepa'' from ''hepatotrophic'' and ''dna'' because it is a DNA virus The virus particle, (virion) consists of an outer lipid envelope and an icosahedral nucleocapsid core composed of protein. The nucleocapsid encloses the viral DNA and a DNA polymerase that has reverse transcriptase activity. The outer envelope contains embedded proteins which are involved in viral binding of, and entry into, susceptible cells. The virus is one of the smallest enveloped animal viruses with a virion diameter of 42 nm, but pleomorphic forms exist, including filamentous and spherical bodies lacking a core. These particles are not infectious and are composed of the lipid and protein that forms part of the surface of the virion, which is called the surface antigen (HBsAg), and is produced in excess during the life cycle of the virus.

This transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed the presence of hepatitis B virions. The large round virions are known as Dane particles.
This transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed the presence of hepatitis B virions. The large round virions are known as Dane particles. Image Credit: CDC/ Dr. Erskine Palmer

The earliest record of an epidemic caused by hepatitis B virus was made by Lurman in 1885. An outbreak of smallpox occurred in Bremen in 1883 and 1,289 shipyard employees were vaccinated with lymph from other people. After several weeks, and up to eight months later, 191 of the vaccinated workers became ill with jaundice and were diagnosed as suffering from serum hepatitis. Other employees who had been inoculated with different batches of lymph remained healthy. Lurman's paper, now regarded as a classical example of an epidemiological study, proved that contaminated lymph was the source of the outbreak. Later, numerous similar outbreaks were reported following the introduction, in 1909, of hypodermic needles that were used, and more importantly reused, for administering Salvarsan for the treatment of syphilis. The virus was not discovered until 1965 when Baruch Blumberg, then working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), discovered the Australia antigen (later known to be hepatitis B surface antigen, or HBsAg) in the blood of Australian aboriginal people. Although a virus had been suspected since the research published by MacCallum in 1947, D.S. Dane and others discovered the virus particle in 1970 by electron microscopy. By the early 1980s the genome of the virus had been sequenced, and the first vaccines were being tested.


The genome of HBV is made of circular DNA, but it is unusual because the DNA is not fully double-stranded. One end of the full length strand is linked to the viral DNA polymerase. The genome is 3020–3320 nucleotides long (for the full-length strand) and 1700–2800 nucleotides long (for the short length-strand). The negative-sense, (non-coding), is complementary to the viral mRNA. The viral DNA is found in the nucleus soon after infection of the cell. The partially double-stranded DNA is rendered fully double-stranded by completion of the (+) sense strand and removal of a protein molecule from the (-) sense strand and a short sequence of RNA from the (+) sense strand. Non-coding bases are removed from the ends of the (-) sense strand and the ends are rejoined. There are four known genes encoded by the genome, called C, X, P, and S. The core protein is coded for by gene C (HBcAg), and its start codon is preceded by an upstream in-frame AUG start codon from which the pre-core protein is produced. HBeAg is produced by proteolytic processing of the pre-core protein. The DNA polymerase is encoded by gene P. Gene S is the gene that codes for the surface antigen (HBsAg). The HBsAg gene is one long open reading frame but contains three in frame "start" (ATG) codons that divide the gene into three sections, pre-S1, pre-S2, and S. Because of the multiple start codons, polypeptides of three different sizes called large, middle, and small (pre-S1 + pre-S2 + S, pre-S2 + S, or S) are produced. The function of the protein coded for by gene X is not fully understood.


The life cycle of hepatitis B virus is complex. Hepatitis B is one of a few known non-retroviral viruses which use reverse transcription as a part of its replication process. The virus gains entry into the cell by binding to an unknown receptor on the surface of the cell and enters it by endocytosis. Because the virus multiplies via RNA made by a host enzyme, the viral genomic DNA has to be transferred to the cell nucleus by host proteins called chaperones. The partially double stranded viral DNA is then made fully double stranded and transformed into covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA) that serves as a template for transcription of four viral mRNAs. The largest mRNA, (which is longer than the viral genome), is used to make the new copies of the genome and to make the capsid core protein and the viral DNA polymerase. These four viral transcripts undergo additional processing and go on to form progeny virions which are released from the cell or returned to the nucleus and re-cycled to produce even more copies. The long mRNA is then transported back to the cytoplasm where the virion P protein synthesizes DNA via its reverse transcriptase activity.


The virus is divided into four major serotypes (adr, adw, ayr, ayw) based on antigenic epitopes presented on its envelope proteins, and into eight genotypes (A-H) according to overall nucleotide sequence variation of the genome. The genotypes have a distinct geographical distribution and are used in tracing the evolution and transmission of the virus. Differences between genotypes affect the disease severity, course and likelihood of complications, and response to treatment and possibly vaccination.

Further Reading

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