The sequence analysis of herpesviruses suggests they have been evolving with their individual vertebrate hosts for millions of years, and their divergence parallels that of the hosts they infect. Given this time they have been learning to live with their individual hosts, it is not surprising that they have become extremely well adapted to doing so without causing much in the way of obvious disease. A key feature of their strategy for persisting in the host is the ability of all herpesviruses to establish latent infection-a state in which no, or only a very limited set of, viral genes are expressed in cells in which viral DNA persists. The alpha herpesviruses (herpes simplex and varicella zoster virus) establish latency in neuronal cells in sensory ganglia: these are long lived non-dividing cells and the alpha herpesviruses persist in these with expression of only the latency associated transcripts-although the function of these RNA transcripts remains incompletely understood. The principal gamma herpesvirus of humans, Epstein Barr virus (EBV), is latent mainly in B lymphocytes: EBV persistence in B cells is associated with expression of a limited set of viral genes encoding functions necessary for the maintenance of the episomal viral DNA as B cells divide.The mechanism by which the principal beta herpesvirus of humans-human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) persists, is also incompletely understood and the subject of this review. Understanding how HCMV persists has clinical relevance in that its transmission to seronegative recipients might be more easily prevented, and the mechanisms by which it produces disease in the neonate and immunocompromised hosts more easily understood, if we knew more about the cells in which the virus is latent and the way in which it reactivates.
Copyright 2002 The British Infection Society.