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J Virol. 2013 Oct;87(19):10489-500. doi: 10.1128/JVI.01546-13. Epub 2013 Jul 24.

Impact of sequence variation in the UL128 locus on production of human cytomegalovirus in fibroblast and epithelial cells.

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Institute of Infection and Immunity, School of Medicine, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom.


The human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) virion envelope contains a complex consisting of glycoproteins gH and gL plus proteins encoded by the UL128 locus (UL128L): pUL128, pUL130, and pUL131A. UL128L is necessary for efficient infection of myeloid, epithelial, and endothelial cells but limits replication in fibroblasts. Consequently, disrupting mutations in UL128L are rapidly selected when clinical isolates are cultured in fibroblasts. In contrast, bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC)-cloned strains TB40-BAC4, FIX, and TR do not contain overt disruptions in UL128L, yet no virus reconstituted from them has been reported to acquire mutations in UL128L in vitro. We performed BAC mutagenesis and reconstitution experiments to test the hypothesis that these strains contain subtle mutations in UL128L that were acquired during passage prior to BAC cloning. Compared to strain Merlin containing wild-type UL128L, all three strains produced higher yields of cell-free virus. Moreover, TB40-BAC4 and FIX spread cell to cell more rapidly than wild-type Merlin in fibroblasts but more slowly in epithelial cells. The differential growth properties of TB40-BAC4 and FIX (but not TR) were mapped to single-nucleotide substitutions in UL128L. The substitution in TB40-BAC4 reduced the splicing efficiency of UL128, and that in FIX resulted in an amino acid substitution in UL130. Introduction of these substitutions into Merlin dramatically increased yields of cell-free virus and increased cell-to-cell spread in fibroblasts but reduced the abundance of pUL128 in the virion and the efficiency of epithelial cell infection. These substitutions appear to represent mutations in UL128L that permit virus to be propagated in fibroblasts while retaining epithelial cell tropism.

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