Infection of human B lymphocytes with Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) in vitro induces a G0 to G1 transition followed by DNA synthesis and cell division. The virus activation of the cell cycle closely mimics the antigen-dependent normal B cell activation pathway. Infected B cells undergo blast transformation followed by the emergence of immortalized lymphoblastoid cell lines. Numerous cellular proteins are switched on in the infected cells, including p53. In view of the frequent association of wild-type p53 (wtp53) expression with growth arrest and apoptosis, p53 expression, cell viability (absence of apoptosis) and cell cycle progression at the single cell level during the first week after EBV infection were assessed. The rate of EBV infection was scored by EBNA-5 staining between 20 and 72 h after infection and varied between 20 and 25% of the cell population. All EBNA-5-positive blasts were p53-positive as well. Double staining for p53 and for DNA ends (TUNEL) revealed that p53-positivity and apoptosis were mutually exclusive. Quantification of the DNA content by Hoechst staining and computer-assisted image analysis showed that a fraction of the p53-positive blasts had a DNA content higher than 2N, indicating entry into the S/G2 phases. Double p53 and BrdU staining of the cells, pulse-labelled with BrdU, revealed that 65% of the p53-positive blasts were in S phase 3 days after infection. Similarly, B cell activation by CD40L and IL-4 induced p53 expression without any adverse effect on cell cycle progression. Therefore, the phenomenon is not EBV-specific but correlates with immunoblast activation.


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