Inflammasome, the Constitutive Heterochromatin Machinery, and Replication of an Oncogenic Herpesvirus

Viruses. 2021 May 6;13(5):846. doi: 10.3390/v13050846.


The success of long-term host-virus partnerships is predicated on the ability of the host to limit the destructive potential of the virus and the virus's skill in manipulating its host to persist undetected yet replicate efficiently when needed. By mastering such skills, herpesviruses persist silently in their hosts, though perturbations in this host-virus equilibrium can result in disease. The heterochromatin machinery that tightly regulates endogenous retroviral elements and pericentromeric repeats also silences invading genomes of alpha-, beta-, and gammaherpesviruses. That said, how these viruses disrupt this constitutive heterochromatin machinery to replicate and spread, particularly in response to disparate lytic triggers, is unclear. Here, we review how the cancer-causing gammaherpesvirus Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) uses the inflammasome as a security system to alert itself of threats to its cellular home as well as to flip the virus-encoded lytic switch, allowing it to replicate and escape in response to a variety of lytic triggers. EBV provides the first example of an infectious agent able to actively exploit the inflammasome to spark its replication. Revealing an unexpected link between the inflammasome and the epigenome, this further brings insights into how the heterochromatin machinery uses differential strategies to maintain the integrity of the cellular genome whilst guarding against invading pathogens. These recent insights into EBV biology and host-viral epigenetic regulation ultimately point to the NLRP3 inflammasome as an attractive target to thwart herpesvirus reactivation.

Keywords: ATM; Epstein–Barr virus; KAP1; KRAB–ZFP; NLRP3; TIF1β; TRIM28; ZEBRA; caspase 1; constitutive heterochromatin; epigenetics; epigenome; gammaherpesvirus; herpesvirus; heterochromatin; inflammasome; lytic phase; lytic switch; reactivation; viral protein kinase.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Carcinogenesis*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / immunology
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections / virology
  • Herpesviridae / genetics*
  • Herpesviridae / physiology
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / genetics
  • Herpesvirus 4, Human / immunology
  • Heterochromatin / genetics*
  • Heterochromatin / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Inflammasomes / genetics*
  • Inflammasomes / immunology*
  • Virus Activation
  • Virus Latency / physiology
  • Virus Replication / genetics
  • Virus Replication / immunology*


  • Heterochromatin
  • Inflammasomes