Visualization of alternative Epstein-Barr virus expression programs by fluorescent in situ hybridization at the cell level

Anna Szeles, Kerstin I. Falk, Stephan Imreh, George Klein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) transforms human B lymphocytes into immortalized lymphoblastoid cell lines (LCLs). They regularly express six virally encoded nuclear proteins (EBNA1 to EBNA6) and three membrane proteins (LMP1, LMP2A, and LMP2B). In contrast, EBV-carrying Burkitt lymphoma (BL) cells in vivo and derived type I cell lines that maintain the BL phenotype express only EBNA1. During prolonged in vitro culturing, most EBV-carrying BL lines drift toward a more immunoblastic (type II or III) phenotype. Their viral antigen expression is upregulated in parallel. We have used fluorescent in situ hybridization to visualize viral transcripts in type I and III BL lines and LCLs. In type I cells, EBNA1 is encoded by a monocistronic message that originates from the Qp promoter. In type III cells, the EBNA1 transcript is spliced from a giant polycistronic message that originates from one of several alternative Wp or Cp promoters and encodes all six EBNAs. We have obtained a 'track' signal with a BamHI W DNA probe that could hybridize with the polycistronic but not with the monocistronic message in two type III BL lines (Namalwa-Cl8 and MUTU III) and three LCLs (LCL IB4-D, LCL-970402, and IARC-171). A BamHI K probe that can hybridize to both the monocistronic and the polycistronic message visualized the same pattern in the type III BLs and the LCLs as the BamHI W probe. A positive signal was obtained with the BamHI K but not the BamHI W probe in the type I BL lines MUTU I and Rael. The RNA track method can thus distinguish between cells that use a type III and those that use a type I program. The former cells hybridize with both the W and the K probes, but the latter cells hybridize with only the K probe. Our findings may open the way for studies of the important but still unanswered question of whether cells with type I latency arise from immunoblasts with a full type HI program or are generated by a separate pathway during primary infection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5064-5069
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Virology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes


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