Clinical strains of HCMV encode 20 putative ORFs within a region of the genome termed ULb′ that are postulated to encode functions related to persistence or immune evasion. We have previously identified ULb′-encoded pUL138 as necessary, but not sufficient, for HCMV latency in CD34+ hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs) infected in vitro. pUL138 is encoded on polycistronic transcripts that also encode 3 additional proteins, pUL133, pUL135, and pUL136, collectively comprising the UL133-UL138 locus. This work represents the first characterization of these proteins and identifies a role for this locus in infection. Similar to pUL138, pUL133, pUL135, and pUL136 are integral membrane proteins that partially co-localized with pUL138 in the Golgi during productive infection in fibroblasts. As expected of ULb′ sequences, the UL133-UL138 locus was dispensable for replication in cultured fibroblasts. In CD34+ HPCs, this locus suppressed viral replication in HPCs, an activity attributable to both pUL133 and pUL138. Strikingly, the UL133-UL138 locus was required for efficient replication in endothelial cells. The association of this locus with three context-dependent phenotypes suggests an exciting role for the UL133-UL138 locus in modulating the outcome of viral infection in different contexts of infection. Differential profiles of protein expression from the UL133-UL138 locus correlated with the cell-type dependent phenotypes associated with this locus. We extended our in vitro findings to analyze viral replication and dissemination in a NOD-scid IL2Rγcnull-humanized mouse model. The UL133-UL138NULL virus exhibited an increased capacity for replication and/or dissemination following stem cell mobilization relative to the wild-type virus, suggesting an important role in viral persistence and spread in the host. As pUL133, pUL135, pUL136, and pUL138 are conserved in virus strains infecting higher order primates, but not lower order mammals, the functions encoded likely represent host-specific viral adaptations.
Human cytomegalovirus is a ubiquitous herpesvirus that, like all herpesviruses, establishes a life long relationship with its host through a latent infection. The molecular basis of viral latency is poorly understood, in part, because viral determinants of latency and the corresponding virus-host interactions are not well defined. We have identified a polycistronic locus encoding the pUL138 latency determinant, as well as three previously uncharacterized proteins, pUL133, pUL135, and pUL136. We have characterized this novel locus, the proteins it encodes and demonstrated the role of the locus in modulating viral replication depending on the context of infection. While this locus is dispensable for productive replication in fibroblasts, it adversely impacts virus replication in primary hematopoietic cells, suggesting a role in establishing latency. Surprisingly, the locus is required for efficient replication in primary human endothelial cells. To our knowledge this is the first demonstration of a viral locus that can have positive, negative, or null effects on viral replication depending on the context of infection. Our work defines exciting new primate strain-specific determinants mediating viral replication and latency and exemplifies the complex nature of virus-host interactions in cytomegalovirus infection.