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Vet Microbiol. 2004 Sep 8;102(3-4):147-67.

Comparative analysis of Marek's disease virus (MDV) glycoprotein-, lytic antigen pp38- and transformation antigen Meq-encoding genes: association of meq mutations with MDVs of high virulence.

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Department of Poultry Science, Center of Excellence for Poultry Science, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701, USA.


Marek's disease (MD) is a highly contagious lymphoproliferative and demyelinating disorder of chickens. MD is caused by Marek's disease virus (MDV), a cell-associated, acute-transforming alphaherpesvirus. For three decades, losses to the poultry industry due to MD have been greatly limited through the use of live vaccines. MDV vaccine strains are comprised of antigenically related, apathogenic MDVs originally isolated from chickens (MDV-2), turkeys (herpesvirus of turkeys, HVT) or attenuated-oncogenic strains of MDV-1 (CVI-988). Since the inception of high-density poultry production and MD vaccination, there have been two discernible increases in the virulence of MDV field strains. Our objectives were to determine if common mutations in the major glycoprotein genes, a major lytic antigen phosphoprotein 38 (pp38) or a major latency/transformation antigen Meq (Marek's EcoRI-Q-encoded protein) were associated with enhanced MDV virulence. To address this, we cloned and sequenced the major surface glycoprotein genes (gB, gC, gD, gE, gH, gI, and gL) of five MDV strains that were representative of the virulent (v), very virulent (vv) and very virulent plus (vv+) pathotypes of MDV. We found no consistent mutations in these genes that correlated strictly with virulence level. The glycoprotein genes most similar among MDV-1, MDV-2 and HVT (gB and gC, approximately 81 and 75%, respectively) were among the most conserved across pathotype. We found mutations mapping to the putative signal cleavage site in the gL genes in four out of eleven vv+MDVs, but this mutation was also identified in one vvMDV (643P) indicating that it did not correlate with enhanced virulence. In further analysis of an additional 12 MDV strains, we found no gross polymorphism in any of the glycoprotein genes. Likewise, by PCR and RFLP analysis, we found no polymorphism at the locus encoding the pp38 gene, an early lytic-phase gene associated with MDV replication. In contrast, we found distinct mutations in the latency and transformation-associated Marek's EcoRI-Q-encoded protein, Meq. In examination of the DNA and deduced amino acid sequence of meq genes from 26 MDV strains (9 m/vMDV, 5 vvMDV and 12 vv+MDVs), we found distinct polymorphism and point mutations that appeared to correlate with virulence. Although a complex trait like MDV virulence is likely to be multigenic, these data describe the first sets of mutations that appear to correlate with MDV virulence. Our conclusion is that since Meq is expressed primarily in the latent/transforming phase of MDV infection, and is not encoded by MDV-2 or HVT vaccine viruses, the evolution of MDV virulence may be due to selection on MDV-host cell interactions during latency and may not be mediated by the immune selection against virus lytic antigens such as the surface glycoproteins.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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