Specialization for cell-free or cell-to-cell spread of BAC-cloned human cytomegalovirus strains is determined by factors beyond the UL128-131 and RL13 Loci

Eric P. Schultz, Jean Marc Lanchy, Le Zhang Day, Qin Yu, Christopher Peterson, Jessica Preece, Brent J. Ryckman

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16 Scopus citations


It is widely held that clinical isolates of human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) are highly cell associated, and mutations affecting the UL128-131 and RL13 loci that arise in culture lead to the appearance of a cell-free spread phenotype. The bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) clone Merlin (ME) expresses abundant UL128-131, is RL13 impaired, and produces low infectivity virions in fibroblasts, whereas TB40/e (TB) and TR are low in UL128-131, are RL13 intact, and produce virions of much higher infectivity. Despite these differences, quantification of spread by flow cytometry revealed remarkably similar spread efficiencies in fibroblasts. In epithelial cells, ME spread more efficiently, consistent with robust UL128-131 expression. Strikingly, ME spread far better than did TB or TR in the presence of neutralizing antibodies on both cell types, indicating that ME is not simply deficient at cell-free spread but is particularly efficient at cell-to-cell spread, whereas TB and TR cell-to-cell spread is poor. Sonically disrupted ME-infected cells contained scant infectivity, suggesting that the efficient cell-to-cell spread mechanism of ME depends on features of the intact cells such as junctions or intracellular trafficking processes. Even when UL128-131 was transcriptionally repressed, cell-to-cell spread of ME was still more efficient than that of TB or TR. Moreover, RL13 expression comparably reduced both cell-free and cell-to-cell spread of all three strains, suggesting that it acts at a stage of assembly and/or egress common to both routes of spread. Thus, HCMV strains can be highly specialized for either for cell-free or cell-to-cell spread, and these phenotypes are determined by factors beyond the UL128-131 or RL13 loci. IMPORTANCE Both cell-free and cell-to-cell spread are likely important for the natural biology of HCMV. In culture, strains clearly differ in their capacity for cell-free spread as a result of differences in the quantity and infectivity of extracellular released progeny. However, it has been unclear whether “cell-associated” phenotypes are simply the result of poor cell-free spread or are indicative of particularly efficient cell-to-cell spread mechanisms. By measuring the kinetics of spread at early time points, we were able to show that HCMV strains can be highly specialized to either cell-free or cell-to-cell mechanisms, and this was not strictly linked the efficiency of cell-free spread. Our results provide a conceptual approach to evaluating intervention strategies for their ability to limit cell-free or cell-to-cell spread as independent processes.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere00034-20
JournalJournal of Virology
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jul 2020


  • Cell-to-cell spread
  • Genetic diversity
  • Human cytomegalovirus
  • Tropism


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