A synthetic peptide (SP1), corresponding to the amino acid residues 122 through 137 of the major polypeptide derived from hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), subtype ayw, was analyzed for the presence of the major epitopes of HBsAg. Both a cyclic form, produced by introduction of an intrachain disulfide bond, and a linear form of the peptide were characterized. A panel of monoclonal antibodies with defined specificity for the cross-reactive group a antigenic determinant(s) and for the y and w subtype specificities was used for this analysis. The cyclic, but not the linear, form of SP1 reacted with five of 14 anti-a monoclonal antibodies, demonstrating that the cyclic peptide contains a conformation-dependent a epitope. Only one anti-a antibody was found to react with both cyclic and linear forms of SP1. Because SP1 failed to react with the remaining 8 anti-a monoclonal antibodies, it was concluded that the a antigenic reactivity associated with HBsAg contains an additional epitope(s) unrelated to that expressed on SP1. Both cyclic and linear SP1 reacted with three of three anti-y monoclonal antibodies, indicating that a sequential y epitope is also present on SP1; no w reactivity was detected. Analysis of the idiotypes associated with the monoclonal antibodies showed those that combined with cyclic SP1 also inhibited the binding of a common human anti-HBs (CHBs) idiotype with its rabbit anti-idiotype serum, whereas a monoclonal antibody that did not react with the cyclic SP1 epitope failed to inhibit the CHBs idiotype-anti-idiotype reaction. Thus, the conformational a epitope present on cyclic SP1 appears to contain the predominant epitope recognized by humans in response to a natural HBV infection.

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