Following reactivation from latency, there are two distinct steps in the spread of herpes simplex virus (HSV) from infected neurons to epithelial cells: (i) anterograde axonal transport of virus particles from neuron bodies to axon tips and (ii) exocytosis and spread of extracellular virions across cell junctions into adjacent epithelial cells. The HSV heterodimeric glycoprotein gE/gI is important for anterograde axonal transport, and gE/gI cytoplasmic domains play important roles in sorting of virus particles into axons. However, the roles of the large (∼400-residue) gE/gI extracellular (ET) domains in both axonal transport and neuron-to-epithelial cell spread have not been characterized. Two gE mutants, gE-277 and gE-348, contain small insertions in the gE ET domain, fold normally, form gE/gI heterodimers, and are incorporated into virions. Both gE-277 and gE-348 did not function in anterograde axonal transport; there were markedly reduced numbers of viral capsids and glycoproteins compared with wild-type HSV. The defects in axonal transport were manifest in neuronal cell bodies, involving missorting of HSV capsids before entry into proximal axons. Although there were diminished numbers of mutant gE-348 capsids and glycoproteins in distal axons, there was efficient spread to adjacent epithelial cells, similar to wild-type HSV. In contrast, virus particles produced by HSV gE-277 spread poorly to epithelial cells, despite numbers of virus particles similar to those for HSV gE-348. These results genetically separate the two steps in HSV spread from neurons to epithelial cells and demonstrate that the gE/gI ET domains function in both processes.
Importance: An essential phase of the life cycle of herpes simplex virus (HSV) and other alphaherpesviruses is the capacity to reactivate from latency and then spread from infected neurons to epithelial tissues. This spread involves at least two steps: (i) anterograde transport to axon tips followed by (ii) exocytosis and extracellular spread from axons to epithelial cells. HSV gE/gI is a glycoprotein that facilitates this virus spread, although by poorly understood mechanisms. Here, we show that the extracellular (ET) domains of gE/gI promote the sorting of viral structural proteins into proximal axons to begin axonal transport. However, the gE/gI ET domains also participate in the extracellular spread from axon tips across cell junctions to epithelial cells. Understanding the molecular mechanisms involved in gE/gI-mediated sorting of virus particles into axons and extracellular spread to adjacent cells is fundamentally important for identifying novel targets to reduce alphaherpesvirus disease.
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