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We examined serial changes in the hypervariable region 1(HVR1) quasispecies both in immune and nonimmune complexed hepatitis C virus (HCV) particles from 12 patients with chronic hepatitis C to elucidate the mechanism by which genetic diversification of HCV during the course of infection allows escape of virus from the humoural immune response. Immune and nonimmune complexes were separated by differential flotation centrifugation and immunoprecipitation, and their HVR1 quasispecies were determined by subcloning and sequencing. The presence of a specific antibody against a specific viral clone in serum was examined in two patients by Western blotting of the corresponding recombinant HVR1 protein. The distribution of HVR1 quasispecies in both immune and nonimmune complexes conspicuously changed over time in most of the patients studied. In seven patients, various HCV clones serially shifted from nonimmune complexes to immune complexes. In four of them, a group of clones with similar HVR1 sequences to each other remained predominant in nonimmune complexes, whereas minor clones with sequences considerably divergent from the predominant clones shifted from nonimmune complexes to immune complexes. These results suggest a mechanism for persistent infection of HCV, in which major HCV clones escape from neutralization by anti-HVR1 antibodies by generating considerably divergent minor ‘decoy’ clones which may be preferentially neutralized.