Hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), the major coat protein of hepatitis B virus, is also independently secreted from infected cells as a lipoprotein particle. Secretion proceeds without signal sequence removal or cleavage of other segments of the polypeptide. We have examined the synthesis and transport of HBsAg in cultured cells expressing the cloned surface antigen gene. Our results show that HBsAg is initially synthesized as a integral membrane protein. This transmembrane form is slowly converted to a secreted lipoprotein complex in the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum via a series of definable intermediates, after which it is secreted from the cell. This unusual export process shares many features with the assembly and budding reactions of conventional enveloped animal viruses. However, it differs importantly in its absence of a requirement for the participation of nucleocapsid or other viral proteins.
We have studied the translocation of a normally cytoplasmic protein domain across the membrane of the endoplasmic reticulum in cell-free systems and in Xenopus laevis oocytes. Coding regions for the normally cytoplasmic protein globin were engineered in frame either 3' or 5' to the coding region for the signal sequence of either Escherichia coli b-lactamase or bovine preprolactin, respectively, in SP6 expression plasmids. RNA transcribed from these plasmids was microinjected into oocytes as well as translated in cell-free systems. We demonstrate that both in vivo and in vitro, a previously amino-terminal signal sequence can direct translocation of domains engineered to either side. Moreover, the domain preceding the signal sequence can be as large as that which follows it. While, in general, cell-free systems were found to faithfully reflect translocation events in vivo, our results suggest that a mechanism for clearance of signal peptides after cleavage is present in intact cells that is not reconstituted in cell-free systems.