Hepatitis E virus (HEV) infection results in hepatitis E, an acute and self-limited disease. The virus is transmitted in a faecal–oral manner and is a major cause of viral hepatitis in much of the developing world, where it causes rampant sporadic infections and large epidemics. A curious feature of hepatitis E is the unusually high rates of mortality that are observed in pregnant women, in whom the disease is exacerbated by the development of fulminant liver disease. In the absence of viable in vitro propagation systems, several geographical isolates of HEV have been maintained in vivo in nonhuman primates and, subsequently, the viral genome has been cloned and sequenced. HEV has been classified provisionally into a separate family known as the HEV-like viruses, which has at least four recognised genotypes, but has only a single serotype. The viral genome is a positive-stranded (+)RNA of ~7.5 kb and encodes at least three proteins. Open reading frame 1 (ORF1) encodes the viral nonstructural polyprotein, which has domains that are homologous to some of the replication and processing enzymes found in other +RNA viruses. The HEV protein itself remains poorly characterised. The protein encoded by open reading frame 2 (ORF2) is the major HEV capsid protein, and the protein encoded by open reading frame 3 (ORF3) appears to be involved in virus–host interactions. Several questions related to the biology, epidemiology and pathogenesis of HEV remain unanswered; the progress of a few of these is reviewed here.
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