Indexed on: 05 Mar '10Published on: 05 Mar '10Published in: Journal of virology
The role of epigenetic modifications in the regulation of gammaherpesvirus latency has been a subject of active study for more than 20 years. DNA methylation, associated with transcriptional silencing in mammalian genomes, has been shown to be an important mechanism in the transcriptional control of several key gammaherpesvirus genes. In particular, DNA methylation of the functionally conserved immediate-early replication and transcription activator (RTA) has been shown to regulate Epstein-Barr virus and Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus Rta expression. Here we demonstrate that the murine gammaherpesvirus (MHV68) homolog, encoded by gene 50, is also subject to direct repression by DNA methylation, both in vitro and in vivo. We observed that the treatment of latently MHV68-infected B-cell lines with a methyltransferase inhibitor induced virus reactivation. In addition, we show that the methylation of the recently characterized distal gene 50 promoter represses activity in a murine macrophage cell line. To evaluate the role of de novo methyltransferases (DNMTs) in the establishment of these methylation marks, we infected mice in which conditional DNMT3a and DNMT3b alleles were selectively deleted in B lymphocytes. DNMT3a/DNMT3b-deficient B cells were phenotypically normal, displaying no obvious compromise in cell surface marker expression or antibody production either in naïve mice or in the context of nonviral and viral immunogens. However, mice lacking functional DNMT3a and DNMT3b in B cells exhibited hallmarks of deregulated MHV68 lytic replication, including increased splenomegaly and the presence of infectious virus in the spleen at day 18 following infection. In addition, total gene 50 transcript levels were elevated in the spleens of these mice at day 18, which correlated with the hypomethylation of the distal gene 50 promoter. However, by day 42 postinfection, aberrant virus replication was resolved, and we observed wild-type frequencies of viral genome-positive splenocytes in mice lacking functional DNMT3a and DNMT3b in B lymphocytes. The latter correlated with increased CpG methylation in the distal gene 50 promoter, which was restored to levels similar to those of littermate controls harboring functional DNMT3a and DNMT3b alleles in B lymphocytes, suggesting the existence of an alternative mechanism for the de novo methylation of the MHV68 genome. Importantly, this DNMT3a/DNMT3b-independent methylation appeared to be targeted specifically to the gene 50 promoter, as we observed that the promoters for MHV68 gene 72 (v-cyclin) and M11 (v-bcl2) remained hypomethylated at day 42 postinfection. Taken together, these data provide the first evidence of the importance of DNA methylation in regulating gammaherpesvirus RTA/gene 50 transcription during virus infection in vivo and provide insight into the hierarchy of host machinery required to establish this modification.