Secreted Oral Epithelial Cell Membrane Vesicles Induce Epstein-Barr Virus Reactivation in Latently Infected B Cells

J Virol. 2016 Jan 13;90(7):3469-79. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02830-15.


In the oral epithelium, peripheral stores of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) are transmitted from infiltrating B cells to epithelial cells. Once the virus is transmitted to epithelial cells, the highly permissive nature of this cell type for lytic replication allows virus amplification and exchange to other hosts. Since the initial transfer of EBV from B cells to epithelial cells requires transitioning of the B-cell to a state that induces virus reactivation, we hypothesized that there might be epithelium-specific signals that allow the infiltrating B cells to sense the appropriate environment to initiate reactivation and begin this exchange process. We previously found that the epithelium-specific miR-200 family of microRNAs promotes EBV lytic replication. Here we show that there are high levels of miR-200 family members in oral and tonsillar epithelia and in saliva. Analysis of cultured oral epithelial cells (OKF6) showed that they actively secrete membrane vesicles (exosomes) that are enriched with miR-200 family members. Coculturing of EBV-positive B cells with OKF6 cells induced viral reactivation. Further, treatment of EBV-positive B cells with OKF6 cell-derived membrane vesicles promoted reactivation. Using a cell system that does not naturally express miR-200 family members, we found that enforced expression of a miR-200 family member produced membrane vesicles that were able to induce the lytic cascade in EBV-positive B cells. We propose that membrane vesicles secreted by oral and tonsillar epithelial cells may serve as a tissue-specific environmental cue that initiates reactivation in B cells, promoting the transfer of virus from peripheral B-cell stores to the oral epithelium to facilitate virus amplification and exchange to other hosts.

Importance: Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is an important human pathogen that is causally associated with several lymphomas and carcinomas. The switch from latency to the lytic cycle is critical for successful host infection and for EBV pathogenesis. Although the EBV lytic cycle can be triggered by certain agents in vitro, the mechanisms that signal reactivation in vivo are poorly understood. We previously reported that endogenously expressed miR-200 family members likely play a role in facilitating the lytic tendencies of EBV in epithelial cells. Here we show that membrane vesicles secreted from oral epithelial cells contain miR-200 family members and that they can be transmitted to proximal EBV-positive B cells, where they trigger reactivation. We propose that this intercellular communication pathway may serve as a sensor mechanism for infiltrating B cells to recognize an appropriate environment to initiate reactivation, thereby allowing the exchange of virus to the oral epithelium.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • B-Lymphocytes / virology*
  • Epithelial Cells / virology*
  • Extracellular Vesicles / virology*
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / physiology*
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions / physiology
  • Humans
  • MicroRNAs / genetics*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Mouth Mucosa / cytology
  • Mouth Mucosa / virology*
  • Palatine Tonsil / cytology
  • Palatine Tonsil / virology
  • Saliva / virology
  • Virus Activation / physiology*
  • Virus Replication*


  • MIRN200 microRNA, human
  • MIRN429 microRNA, human
  • MicroRNAs