Monoclonal hybridoma antibodies to the structural proteins of murine hepatitis virus-4, strain JHM (MHV-4) were used in a competition binding enzyme immunoassay to analyze at the epitope level the antibody response of mice after infection with MHV-4. Colonized mice often had pre-existing MHV antibodies directed against epitopes on the E2 glycoprotein, the E1 glycoprotein, and the nucleocapsid protein. These mice generated a secondary antibody response after virus inoculation, reaching peak levels 7 days after infection. In contrast, Nude/+ mice raised in a pathogen-free colony had no detectable circulating MHV antibodies and generated a primary antibody response which gradually increased to peak levels 14 to 28 days after infection. Kinetics of antibody responses against specific epitopes usually correlated well with measured total virus-specific antibody responses, but variation was observed. Mice injected with three antigenically distinct strains of MHV made antibody responses to conserved epitopes but not to an antigenic determinant absent in these strains. Measurement of epitope-specific responses in a polyclonal population of viral specific antibodies is feasible and a valuable adjunct in understanding viral immunity.

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