The ability of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) to avoid lytic replication and to establish a latent infection in B-lymphocytes is fundamental for its lifelong persistence and the pathogenesis of various EBV-associated diseases. The viral immediate-early gene BZLF-1 plays a key role for the induction of lytic replication and its activity is strictly regulated on different levels of gene expression. Recently, it was demonstrated that BZLF-1 is also controlled by a posttranscriptional mechanism. Transient synthesis of a mutated competitor RNA saturated this mechanism and caused both expression of the BZLF-1 protein and the induction of lytic viral replication. Using short overlapping fragments of the competitor, it is shown that this control acts on the unspliced primary transcript. RT-PCR demonstrated unspliced BZLF-1 RNA in latently infected B-lymphocytes in the absence of BZLF-1 protein. Due to the complementarity of the gene BZLF-1 and the latency-associated gene EBNA-1 on the opposite strand of the genome, we propose an antisense-mediated mechanism. RNase protection assays demonstrated transcripts in antisense orientation to the BZLF-1 transcript during latency, which comprise a comparable constellation to other herpesviruses. A combined RNAse protection/RT-PCR assay detected the double-stranded hybrid RNA, consisting of the unspliced BZLF-1 transcript and a noncoding intron of the EBNA-1 gene. Binding of BZLF-1 transcripts is suggested to be an important backup control mechanism in addition to transcriptional regulation, stabilizing latency and preventing inappropriate lytic viral replication in vivo.
Copyright 1999 Wiley-Liss, Inc.