Murine gammaherpesvirus-68 (MHV-68) is a gamma2-herpesvirus that upon experimental infection of laboratory mice establishes a latent infection in B lymphocytes. To date, no virus-encoded gene products have been reported to be expressed during latent infection. In this study, viral transcription has been analysed in a persistently infected B-cell line and abundant and preferential transcription of open reading frame M3 has been identified. Significantly, in situ hybridization analysis of latently infected mouse spleens with probes corresponding to 20 MHV-68 ORFs demonstrated active transcription of a single ORF, corresponding to M3. The kinetics and pattern of transcription of M3 were compared with that of the virally encoded tRNAs (vtRNAs), previously demonstrated to constitute a marker for latent infection in the spleen. Transcription of vtRNAs in splenic tissue could be first detected at 7 days post-inoculation (p.i.) in scattered cells in periarteriolar lymphoid sheaths (PALS). At 10 days p.i., vtRNA transcription was widespread and localized not only to cells in PALS but also to cells within developing germinal centres and from 21 days p.i. expression was detected exclusively within lymphoid follicles. Transcription of vtRNAs could be detected as late as 70 days p.i. In contrast, the histological localization of M3 transcription, which was first detected at 7 days p.i. in scattered cells in PALS, never changed and transcription could not be detected beyond 21 days p.i. These results suggest that M3 is an ORF that is expressed early during the establishment of latency in vivo.


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