Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) rapidly mutates during in vitro passage, and this strongly alters the way the virus spreads. In vivo HCMV spreads by direct cell-cell contact, as do recent clinical isolates. In contrast, passaged strains spread via cell-free virions. Because of this, cell-cell spread remains largely uncharacterised. We have developed a strain (Merlin) that retains a full length, wildtype genome. As a result, it mimics clinical HCMV and spreads by direct cell-cell contact, a method of spread that is more resistant to neutralising antibodies, and innate and intrinsic immunity. We now show that each cell-cell transfer is equivalent to an extremely high MOI infection, with up to 300 genomes delivered to each cell, potentially providing an explanation for the ‘immune-evasive’ properties of cell-cell transfer. Furthermore, infectious virions accumulate at cell-cell contacts between cells. This may represent a ‘virological synapse’ that protects virions from neutralising antibodies. Not only does Merlin enable us to characterise cell-cell spread, but it enables us to infect a wide range of clinically relevant cells with a virus expressing the complete complement of virus genes. In vivo, HCMV infects dendritic cells (DCs), but is never cleared, implying that it is able to subvert DC function. Therefore, we performed quantitative proteomic analysis of infected primary immature DCs, following cell-cell transfer. This quantified 7992 intracellular proteins, and 703 plasma membrane proteins. Over 99 proteins were downregulated following infection. Many of these are DC-specific, and have roles in regulating adaptive immunity. These viral-manipulations may therefore dramatically impact DC function.

  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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