The oral cavity is a persistent reservoir for Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) with lifelong infection of resident epithelial and B cells. Infection of these cell types results in distinct EBV gene expression patterns regulated by epigenetic modifications involving DNA methylation and chromatin structure. Regulation of EBV gene expression relies on viral manipulation of the host epigenetic machinery that may result in long-lasting host epigenetic reprogramming. To identify epigenetic events following EBV infection, a transient infection model was established to map epigenetic changes in telomerase-immortalized oral keratinocytes. EBV-infected oral keratinocytes exhibited a predominantly latent viral gene expression program with some lytic or abortive replication. Calcium and methylcellulose-induced differentiation was delayed in EBV-positive clones and in clones that lost EBV compared to uninfected controls, indicating a functional consequence of EBV epigenetic modifications. Analysis of global cellular DNA methylation identified over 13,000 differentially methylated CpG residues in cells exposed to EBV compared to uninfected controls, with CpG island hypermethylation observed at several cellular genes. Although the vast majority of the DNA methylation changes were silent, 65 cellular genes that acquired CpG methylation showed altered transcript levels. Genes with increased transcript levels frequently acquired DNA methylation within the gene body while those with decreased transcript levels acquired DNA methylation near the transcription start site. Treatment with the DNA methyltransferase inhibitor, decitabine, restored expression of some hypermethylated genes in EBV-infected and EBV-negative transiently infected clones. Overall, these observations suggested that EBV infection of keratinocytes leaves a lasting epigenetic imprint that can enhance the tumorigenic phenotype of infected cells.
Importance: Here, we show that EBV infection of oral keratinocytes led to CpG island hypermethylation as an epigenetic scar of prior EBV infection that was retained after loss of the virus. Such EBV-induced epigenetic modification recapitulated the hypermethylated CpG island methylator phenotype (CIMP) observed in EBV-associated carcinomas. These epigenetic alterations not only impacted gene expression but also resulted in delayed calcium and methylcellulose-induced keratinocyte differentiation. Importantly, these epigenetic changes occurred in cells that were not as genetically unstable as carcinoma cells, indicating that EBV infection induced an epigenetic mutator phenotype. The impact of this work is that we have provided a mechanistic framework for how a tumor virus using the epigenetic machinery can act in a "hit-and-run" fashion, with retention of epigenetic alterations after loss of the virus. Unlike genetic alterations, these virally induced epigenetic changes can be reversed pharmacologically, providing therapeutic interventions to EBV-associated malignancies.
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