Genetic Stability of Bacterial Artificial Chromosome-Derived Human Cytomegalovirus during Culture In Vitro

J Virol. 2016 Mar 28;90(8):3929-43. doi: 10.1128/JVI.02858-15. Print 2016 Apr.


Clinical human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) strains invariably mutate when propagatedin vitro Mutations in gene RL13 are selected in all cell types, whereas in fibroblasts mutants in the UL128 locus (UL128L; genes UL128, UL130, and UL131A) are also selected. In addition, sporadic mutations are selected elsewhere in the genome in all cell types. We sought to investigate conditions under which HCMV can be propagated without incurring genetic defects. Bacterial artificial chromosomes (BACs) provide a stable, genetically defined source of viral genome. Viruses were generated from BACs containing the genomes of strains TR, TB40, FIX, and Merlin, as well as from Merlin-BAC recombinants containing variant nucleotides in UL128L from TB40-BAC4 or FIX-BAC. Propagation of viruses derived from TR-BAC, TB40-BAC4, and FIX-BAC in either fibroblast or epithelial cells was associated with the generation of defects around the prokaryotic vector, which is retained in the unique short (US) region of viruses. This was not observed for Merlin-BAC, from which the vector is excised in derived viruses; however, propagation in epithelial cells was consistently associated with mutations in the unique longb' (UL/b') region, all impacting on gene UL141. Viruses derived from Merlin-BAC in fibroblasts had mutations in UL128L, but mutations occurred less frequently with recombinants containing UL128L nucleotides from TB40-BAC4 or FIX-BAC. Viruses derived from a Merlin-BAC derivative in which RL13 and UL128L were either mutated or repressed were remarkably stable in fibroblasts. Thus, HCMV containing a wild-type gene complement can be generatedin vitroby deriving virus from a self-excising BAC in fibroblasts and repressing RL13 and UL128L.

Importance: Researchers should aim to study viruses that accurately represent the causative agents of disease. This is problematic for HCMV because clinical strains mutate rapidly when propagatedin vitro, becoming less cell associated, altered in tropism, more susceptible to natural killer cells, and less pathogenic. Following isolation from clinical material, HCMV genomes can be stabilized by cloning into bacterial artificial chromosomes (BACs), and then virus is regenerated by DNA transfection. However, mutations can occur not only during isolation prior to BAC cloning but also when virus is regenerated. We have identified conditions under which BAC-derived viruses containing an intact, wild-type genome can be propagatedin vitrowith minimal risk of mutants being selected, enabling studies of viruses expressing the gene complement of a clinical strain. However, even under these optimized conditions, sporadic mutations can occur, highlighting the advisability of sequencing the HCMV stocks used in experiments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line
  • Chromosomes, Artificial, Bacterial*
  • Cytomegalovirus / genetics
  • Cytomegalovirus / growth & development*
  • Epithelial Cells
  • Fibroblasts
  • Genes, Viral
  • Genome, Viral
  • Genomic Instability
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / genetics
  • Viral Envelope Proteins / genetics
  • Virus Cultivation / methods*


  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • UL128 protein, human cytomegalovirus
  • Viral Envelope Proteins