Human Cytomegalovirus IE2 Both Activates and Represses Initiation and Modulates Elongation in a Context-Dependent Manner

mBio. 2022 May 17;e0033722. doi: 10.1128/mbio.00337-22. Online ahead of print.


Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) immediate-early 2 (IE2) protein is a multifunctional transcription factor that is essential for lytic HCMV infection. IE2 functions as an activator of viral early genes, negatively regulates its own promoter, and is required for viral replication. The mechanisms by which IE2 executes these distinct functions are incompletely understood. Using PRO-Seq, which profiles nascent transcripts, and a recently developed DFF-chromatin immunoprecipitation (DFF-ChIP; employs chromatin digestion by the endonuclease DNA fragmentation factor prior to IP) approach that resolves occupancy and local chromatin environment, we show that IE2 controls viral gene transcription in three distinct capacities during late HCMV infection and reveal mechanisms that involve direct binding of IE2 to viral DNA. IE2 represses a subset of viral promoters by binding within their core promoter regions and blocking the assembly of preinitiation complexes (PICs). Remarkably, IE2 forms a repressive complex at the major immediate-early promoter region involving direct association of IE2 with nucleosomes and TBP. IE2 stimulates transcription by binding nearby, but not within, core promoter regions. In addition, IE2 functions as a direct roadblock to transcription elongation. At one locus, this function of IE2 appears to be important for the synthesis of a spliced viral RNA. Consistent with the minimal observed effects of IE2 depletion on host gene transcription, IE2 does not functionally engage the host genome. Our results reveal mechanisms of transcriptional control by IE2, uncover a previously unknown function of IE2 as a Pol II elongation modulator, and demonstrate that DFF-ChIP is a useful tool for probing transcription factor occupancy and interactions between transcription factors and nucleosomes at high resolution. IMPORTANCE HCMV infects more than half of the world population and persists lifelong in its hosts. Although generally asymptomatic, HCMV infection can lead to life-threating disease in immunosuppressed individuals. Moreover, HCMV is the leading infectious cause of birth defects in the United States. As there are no vaccines effective against HCMV and antiviral drugs exhibit toxicity and are undermined by resistant HCMV variants, other vulnerabilities in HCMV must be explored. Here, we characterize the mechanism by which IE2 controls transcription during late HCMV infection. We demonstrate that IE2 engages numerous consensus sites across the HCMV genome and functions as an activator, repressor, or elongation modulator depending on the context of IE2 binding sites in relation to Pol II initiation and elongation complexes. Our findings have important implications for the ongoing exploration of IE2 as an antiviral drug target.

Keywords: DFF-ChIP; IE2; Pol II; chromatin; human cytomegalovirus; preinitiation complex; transcription elongation.