Marek's disease (MD) is caused by Marek's disease virus (MDV), a highly cell-associated alphaherpesvirus. MD is primarily characterized by lymphocyte infiltration of the nerves and the development of lymphomas in visceral organs, muscle, and skin. MDV encodes two phosphoproteins, pp24 and pp38, that are highly expressed during lytic infection. These proteins were initially identified in MDV-induced tumors but are now known to be linked primarily to MDV lytic infection. Despite the recent characterization of a pp38 deletion mutant MDV, the functions of these phosphoproteins remain unknown. The goal of this work was to construct recombinant MDVs having direct fusions of a marker gene, the green fluorescent protein (GFP), to pp38 in order to study the expression patterns and localization of this protein during stages of MDV infection. We report the construction of two recombinant viruses, one having the enhanced green fluorescent protein (eGFP) fused in-frame to the pp38 open reading frame (ORF) (RB1Bpp38/eGFP) and the other having soluble-modified GFP (smGFP) downstream but out-of-frame with pp38 (RB1Bpp38/smGFP).

During construction of RB1Bpp38/eGFP, an ORF located downstream of pp38 (LORF12) was partially deleted. In RB1Bpp38/smGFP, however, LORF12 and its immediate 5′ upstream sequence was left intact. This report describes the construction, cell culture, and in vivo characterization of RB1Bpp38/eGFP and RB1Bpp38/smGFP. Structural analysis showed that the virus stocks of RB1Bpp38/eGFP and RB1Bpp38/smGFP had incorporated the GFP cassette and were free of contaminating parent virus (RB1B). Moreover, RB1Bpp38/eGFP and RB1Bpp38/smGFP contained two and three and four and five copies of the 132-bp repeats, respectively. Expression analysis showed that the transcription of genes in RB1Bpp38/eGFP-and RB1Bpp38/smGFP-infected chicken embryo fibroblasts (CEFs) were similar to RB1B-infected CEFs, with the notable exception of deletion of a LORF12-specific transcript in RB1Bpp38/eGFP-infected cells. In CEFs, RB1Bpp38/eGFP and RB1Bpp38/smGFP showed comparable one-step growth kinetics to parental virus (RB1B). RB1Bpp38/eGFP and RB1Bpp38/smGFP, however, showed quite distinct growth characteristics in vivo. Two independent clones of RB1Bpp38/eGFP were highly attenuated, whereas RB1Bpp38/smGFP exhibited pathogenesis similar to parent virus and retained oncogenicity. Our results suggest that the RB1Bpp38/eGFP phenotype could be due to an interference with an in vivo-specific pp38 function via GFP direct fusion, to the deletion of LORF12, or to a targeting of the immune response to eGFP. Because deletion of pp38 was recently found not to fully attenuate very virulent MDV strain MD-5, it is possible that deletion of LORF12 may be at least partially responsible for the attenuation of RB1Bpp38/eGFP. The construction of these viruses and the establishment of cell lines from RB1Bpp38/smGFP provide useful tools for the study of MDV lytic infection in cell culture and in vivo, in studies of the reactivation of MDV from latency, and in the functional analysis of LORF12.

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