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Chronic hepatitis B is a global health problem and current treatments only suppress hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection, highlighting the need for new curative treatments. Oxygen levels influence HBV replication and we previously reported that hypoxia inducible factors (HIFs) activate the basal core promoter to transcribe pre-genomic RNA. Application of a probe-enriched long-read sequencing method to map the HBV transcriptome showed an increased abundance of all viral RNAs under low oxygen or hypoxic conditions. Importantly, the hypoxic-associated increase in HBV transcripts was dependent on N6-methyladenosine (m6A) modifications and an m6A DRACH motif in the 5' stem loop of pre-genomic RNA defined transcript half-life under hypoxic conditions. Given the essential role of m6A modifications in the viral transcriptome we assessed the oxygen-dependent expression of RNA demethylases and bioinformatic analysis of published single cell RNA-seq of murine liver showed an increased expression of the RNA demethylase ALKBH5 in the peri-central low oxygen region. In vitro studies with a human hepatocyte derived HepG2 cell line showed increased ALKBH5 gene expression under hypoxic conditions. Silencing the demethylase reduced the levels of HBV pre-genomic RNA and host gene (CA9, NDRG1, VEGFA, BNIP3, FUT11, GAP and P4HA1) transcripts and this was mediated via reduced HIFα expression. In summary, our study highlights a previously unrecognized role for ALKBH5 in orchestrating viral and cellular transcriptional responses to low oxygen.

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ALKBH5, HBV, HIF, hypoxia, m6A