Repression of the major immediate early promoter of human cytomegalovirus allows transcription from an alternate promoter

J Gen Virol. 2023 Sep;104(9). doi: 10.1099/jgv.0.001894.


Following infection, the human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) genome becomes rapidly associated with host histones which can contribute to the regulation of viral gene expression. This can be seen clearly during HCMV latency where silencing of the major immediate early promoter (MIEP), normally responsible for expression of the key lytic proteins IE72 and IE86, is mediated by histone methylation and recruitment of heterochromatin protein 1. Crucially, reversal of these histone modifications coupled with histone acetylation drives viral reactivation which can be blocked with specific histone acetyltransferase inhibitors (HATi). In lytic infection, a role for HATi is less clear despite the well-established enhancement of viral replication observed with histone deacetylase inhibitors. Here we report that a number of different broad-acting HATi have a minor impact on viral infection and replication during lytic infection with the more overt phenotypes observed at lower multiplicities of infection. However, specific analyses of the regulation of major immediate early (MIE) gene expression reveal that the HATi C646, which targets p300/CBP, transiently repressed MIE gene expression via inhibition of the MIEP but by 24 h post-infection MIE gene expression was rescued due to compensatory activation of an alternative IE promoter, ip2. This suggested that silencing of the MIEP promoted alternative ip2 promoter activity in lytic infection and, consistent with this, ip2 transcription is impaired in cells infected with a recombinant HCMV that does not auto-repress the MIEP at late times of infection. Furthermore, inhibition of the histone methyltransferases known to be responsible for auto-repression is similarly inhibitory to ip2 transcription in wild-type infected cells. We also observe that these discrete transcriptional activities of the MIEP and ip2 promoter are also reflected in reactivation; essentially in cells where the MIEP is silenced, ip2 activity is easier to detect at very early times post-reactivation whereas in cells where robust activation of the MIEP is observed ip2 transcription is reduced or delayed. Finally, we observe that inhibition of pathways demonstrated to be important for reactivation of HCMV in dendritic cells, e.g. in response to IL-6, are preferentially important for activation of the MIEP and not the ip2 promoter. Together, these data add to the hypothesis that the existence of multiple promoters within the MIE region of HCMV can drive reactivation in a cell type- and ligand-specific manner and also suggest that inter-dependent regulatory activity between the two promoters exists.

Keywords: cell signalling; chromatin; cytomegalovirus; epigenetics; gene expression; latency.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cytomegalovirus* / genetics
  • Genes, Immediate-Early
  • Histones* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Phenotype
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic


  • Histones