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J Virol. 2012 Oct;86(19):10714-23. doi: 10.1128/JVI.07129-11. Epub 2012 Jul 25.

Human cytomegalovirus stimulates monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation via the temporal regulation of caspase 3.

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  • 1Department of Microbiology & Immunology, Center for Molecular and Tumor Virology, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, Shreveport, Louisiana, USA.


Monocytes are primary targets for human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) infection and are proposed to be responsible for hematogenous dissemination of the virus. Biologically, monocytes have a short life span of 48 h in the circulation, a period of time during which monocytes must make a cell fate decision on whether to undergo apoptosis or differentiate into a macrophage. We have previously shown that HCMV infection stimulates monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation; however, the mechanism(s) by which HCMV-infected monocytes simultaneously navigate the 48-h "viability gate" and undergo macrophagic differentiation has remained elusive. Studies have demonstrated that the level of caspase 3 and 8 activities in monocytes may mediate the delicate balance between apoptosis and macrophage colony-stimulating factor (M-CSF)-induced myeloid differentiation. Here, we show that HCMV infection, unlike M-CSF treatment, does not induce caspase 8 activity to promote myeloid differentiation. However, HCMV infection does induce a temporal activation of caspase 3, with only a low level of active caspase 3 being observed after the 48-h viability checkpoint. Consistent with the role of a time-dependent activation of caspase 3 in promoting myeloid differentiation, the inhibition of caspase 3 blocked HCMV-induced monocyte-to-macrophage differentiation. Temporal transcriptome and functional analyses identified heat shock protein 27 (HSP27) and Mcl-1, two known regulators of caspase 3 activation, as being upregulated prior to the 48-h viability gate following HCMV infection. Using small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), we demonstrate that HCMV targets the rapid induction of HSP27 and Mcl-1, which cooperatively function to precisely control caspase 3 activity in order to allow for HCMV-infected monocytes to successfully traverse the 48-h cell fate decision checkpoint and commence macrophage maturation. Overall, this study highlights a unique regulatory mechanism employed by HCMV to tightly modulate the caspase 3 activity needed to promote myeloid differentiation, a key process in the viral dissemination and persistence strategy.

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