The major enhancer, extending from nucleotides -530 to -120 upstream of the transcription initiation site of immediate early (IE) genes 1 and 2 in human cytomegalovirus (HCMV), contains four groups of repeated sequence motifs that consist of 17, 18, 19 or 21 bp, respectively. One of these elements, the 19 bp repeat, is a symmetrical palindrome that is also part of IE regulatory sequences of other cytomegalovirus-type herpesviruses, but not of unrelated members of the herpesvirus group. Synthetic oligonucleotides representing the 19 bp repeat unit strongly reduced the activity of the IE1/2 enhancer/promoter in cotransfection assays after transient expression. The HCMV enhancer can substitute for the 72 bp repeats of simian virus 40 (SV40). Replication-competent deletion mutants of SV40/HCMV enhancer recombinants were constructed that contained a single palindromic 19 bp repeat with a central cleavage site for II. If deletions were introduced into the single remaining 19 bp repeat most of the mutant viruses were still replication-competent in CV-1 monkey kidney cells. Insertion of two nucleotides into the single II site did not significantly alter transient SV40 T antigen expression. Deletion of four nucleotides or more from the single 19 bp palindrome reduced the stimulation of T antigen synthesis by the HCMV enhancer/SV40 promoter unit down to about 50%. More extended deletions (28 to 80 bp) did not further reduce T antigen expression. All mutants without an intact 19 bp repeat contained the 18 bp and/or the 21 bp sequence motif. DNase I footprinting and gel retardation assays indicated sequence-specific protein binding by the 19 bp palindrome. Altered palindromes, correlating with reduced enhancer activity, lost most of their protein-binding properties. Thus, the 19 bp repeat element is one of several protein-binding sites that contribute to enhancer strength. However, the 19 bp sequence motif can be deleted entirely to leave reduced activity. The HCMV IE1/2 upstream sequence appears to be the perfect model of an enhancer as a complex of multiple binding sites for trans-activating proteins in a modular fashion.


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