Lentiviruses of sheep and goats cause slowly progressive diseases of the central nervous system (visna), lungs (maedi) and joints (arthritis) in their natural hosts. However, the virus target cell(s) in these diseases are still unknown. In this report, using laboratory-adapted Icelandic visna virus and several field strains recently obtained from sheep and goats with natural disease in the U.S.A., we show that macrophages became persistently infected when inoculated in culture. Furthermore, macrophages were an invariable source of virus from experimentally and naturally infected animals. Virus-producing macrophages developed minimal cytopathic changes and virus assembly occurred mainly intracellularly, accumulating in cytoplasmic vacuoles. In contrast to macrophages, sheep choroid plexus fibroblasts developed syncytial cytopathic changes after inoculation and virus maturation occurred at the cell surfaces. Replication of the Icelandic virus was highly productive in this system but that of the field viruses was very inefficient. In some cases these agents failed to replicate in the fibroblasts and no cytopathic effect occurred. This block in the field virus replication was, however, overcome when infected nonproducer fibroblasts were co-cultivated with macrophages. In these cases, virus production with attendant cytopathic effect in the fibroblasts required the continuous presence of macrophages because the cells reverted to a non-productive state when separated from macrophages and became productive again when subcultures were added to new macrophages. The roles of the macrophage as a virus target cell and virus inducer in the virus-macrophage-fibroblast interactions are discussed with inferences to the well-known phenomenon of restricted virus replication in infected animals and the immunopathological aspects of the diseases.

Keyword(s): macrophage , virus persistence and visna

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