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J Virol. 2016 Sep 29;90(20):9483-94. doi: 10.1128/JVI.01547-16. Print 2016 Oct 15.

Long and Short Isoforms of the Human Cytomegalovirus UL138 Protein Silence IE Transcription and Promote Latency.

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Institute for Molecular Virology and McArdle, Laboratory for Cancer Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
BIO5 Institute and Department of Immunology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, USA.
Institute for Molecular Virology and McArdle, Laboratory for Cancer Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, USA


The UL133-138 locus present in clinical strains of human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) encodes proteins required for latency and reactivation in CD34(+) hematopoietic progenitor cells and virion maturation in endothelial cells. The encoded proteins form multiple homo- and hetero-interactions and localize within secretory membranes. One of these genes, UL136 gene, is expressed as at least five different protein isoforms with overlapping and unique functions. Here we show that another gene from this locus, the UL138 gene, also generates more than one protein isoform. A long form of UL138 (pUL138-L) initiates translation from codon 1, possesses an amino-terminal signal sequence, and is a type one integral membrane protein. Here we identify a short protein isoform (pUL138-S) initiating from codon 16 that displays a subcellular localization similar to that of pUL138-L. Reporter, short-term transcription, and long-term virus production assays revealed that both pUL138-L and pUL138-S are able to suppress major immediate early (IE) gene transcription and the generation of infectious virions in cells in which HCMV latency is studied. The long form appears to be more potent at silencing IE transcription shortly after infection, while the short form seems more potent at restricting progeny virion production at later times, indicating that both isoforms of UL138 likely cooperate to promote HCMV latency.


Latency allows herpesviruses to persist for the lives of their hosts in the face of effective immune control measures for productively infected cells. Controlling latent reservoirs is an attractive antiviral approach complicated by knowledge deficits for how latently infected cells are established, maintained, and reactivated. This is especially true for betaherpesviruses. The functional consequences of HCMV UL138 protein expression during latency include repression of viral IE1 transcription and suppression of virus replication. Here we show that short and long isoforms of UL138 exist and can themselves support latency but may do so in temporally distinct manners. Understanding the complexity of gene expression and its impact on latency is important for considering potential antivirals targeting latent reservoirs.

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