BHRF 1, a component of the restricted early antigen (EA) complex of the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) lytic cycle, encodes a 17 kDa putative transmembrane protein with both sequence and functional homology to the Bcl-2 proto-oncogene. To determine whether there was any sequence variation over the BHRF1 open reading frame (ORF), 15 EBV isolates from different geographical regions and from both healthy donors and patients with EBV-associated diseases were sequenced. A small number of base changes which resulted in amino acid substitutions in the BHRF1 protein were found relative to the prototype B95.8 EBV sequence and these were predominantly clustered near the amino terminus of the BHRF1 protein outside conserved domains identified in the Bcl-2 homologues. In transient transfection assays none of the mutations in the BHRF1 ORF from eight different EBV isolates had a significant effect on BHRF1 protein localization compared to the B95.8 BHRF1 protein. However, transient expression of the adenovirus 12 19K protein or Bcl-2 resulted in localization patterns distinct from that observed with BHRF1 protein. Whilst all eight EBV isolates and E1B-19K gave comparable levels of protection to the DNA-damaging agent cis-platin, Bcl-2 did not afford significant protection. Thus, despite several amino acid changes in the BHRF1 ORF of some of the EBV isolates studied, the ability of the protein to protect against cis-platin induced apoptosis is conserved. The highly conserved nature of BHRF1 amongst different EBV isolates at both the sequence and functional level supports the proposed important role of BHRF1 in delaying cell death, thereby maximizing the production of progeny virus and facilitating the establishment of virus persistence.


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