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EMBO J. 2006 Jun 7;25(11):2634-42. Epub 2006 May 11.

Induction of apoptosis limits cytomegalovirus cross-species infection.

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Rudolf Virchow Center for Experimental Biomedicine, University of Würzburg, Würzburg, Germany.


Cross-species infections are responsible for the majority of emerging and re-emerging viral diseases. However, little is known about the mechanisms that restrict viruses to a certain host species, and the factors viruses need to cross the species barrier and replicate in a different host. Cytomegaloviruses (CMVs) are representatives of the beta-herpesviruses that are highly species specific. They replicate only in cells of their own or a closely related species. In this study, the molecular mechanism underlying the cytomegalovirus species specificity was investigated. We show that infection of human cells with the murine cytomegalovirus (MCMV) triggers the intrinsic apoptosis pathway involving caspase-9 activation. MCMV can break the species barrier and replicate in human cells if apoptosis is blocked by Bcl-2 or a functionally analogous protein. A single gene of the human cytomegalovirus encoding a mitochondrial inhibitor of apoptosis is sufficient to allow MCMV replication in human cells. Moreover, the same principle facilitates replication of the rat cytomegalovirus in human cells. Thus, induction of apoptosis serves as an innate immune defense to inhibit cross-species infections of rodent CMVs.

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