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J Virol. 2014 Mar;88(5):2967-76. doi: 10.1128/JVI.03129-13. Epub 2013 Dec 26.

Elimination of mitochondrial DNA is not required for herpes simplex virus 1 replication.

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Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.


Infection with herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) results in the rapid elimination of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from host cells. It is known that a mitochondrial isoform of the viral alkaline nuclease (UL12) called UL12.5 triggers this process. However, very little is known about the impact of mtDNA depletion on viral replication or the biology of HSV-1 infections. These questions have been difficult to address because UL12.5 and UL12 are encoded by overlapping transcripts that share the same open reading frame. As a result, mutations that alter UL12.5 also affect UL12, and UL12 null mutations severely impair viral growth by interfering with the intranuclear processing of progeny viral genomes. Therefore, to specifically assess the impact of mtDNA depletion on viral replication, it is necessary to eliminate the activity of UL12.5 while preserving the nuclear functions of UL12. Previous work has shown that the human cytomegalovirus alkaline nuclease UL98 can functionally substitute for UL12 during HSV-1 replication. We found that UL98 is unable to deplete mtDNA in transfected cells and therefore generated an HSV-1 variant in which UL98 coding sequences replace the UL12/UL12.5 open reading frame. The resulting virus was severely impaired in its ability to trigger mtDNA loss but reached titers comparable to those of wild-type HSV-1 in one-step and multistep growth experiments. Together, these observations demonstrate that the elimination of mtDNA is not required for HSV-1 replication in cell culture.


Herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 destroy the DNA of host cell mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells. Epstein-Barr virus, a distantly related herpesvirus, has a similar effect, indicating that mitochondrial DNA destruction is under positive selection and thus confers a benefit to the virus. The present work shows that mitochondrial DNA destruction is not required for efficient replication of herpes simplex virus type 1 in cultured Vero kidney epithelial cells, suggesting that this activity likely benefits the virus in other cell types or in the intact human host.

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