Papillomaviruses use rare codons relative to their hosts. Recent studies have demonstrated that synonymous codon changes in viral genes can lead to increased protein production when the codons are matched to those of cells in which the protein is being expressed. We theorized that the immunogenicity of the virus would be enhanced by matching codons of selected viral genes to those of the host. We report here that synonymous codon changes in the E7 oncogene are tolerated in the context of the cottontail rabbit papillomavirus (CRPV) genome. Papilloma growth rates differ depending upon the changes made indicating that synonymous codons are not necessarily neutral. Immunization with wild type E7 DNA yielded significant protection from subsequent challenge by both wild type and codon-modified genomes. The reduction in growth was most dramatic with the genome containing the greatest number of synonymous codon changes.
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