CpG-methylation regulates a class of Epstein-Barr virus promoters.PLoS Pathog 2010; 6(9):e1001114PP
DNA methylation is the major modification of eukaryotic genomes and plays an essential role in mammalian gene regulation. In general, cytosine-phosphatidyl-guanosine (CpG)-methylated promoters are transcriptionally repressed and nuclear proteins such as MECP2, MBD1, MBD2, and MBD4 bind CpG-methylated DNA and contribute to epigenetic silencing. Methylation of viral DNA also regulates gene expression of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which is a model of herpes virus latency. In latently infected human B cells, the viral DNA is CpG-methylated, the majority of viral genes is repressed and virus synthesis is therefore abrogated. EBV's BZLF1 encodes a transcription factor of the AP-1 family (Zta) and is the master gene to overcome viral gene repression. In a genome-wide screen, we now identify and characterize those viral genes, which Zta regulates. Among them are genes essential for EBV's lytic phase, which paradoxically depend on strictly CpG-methylated promoters for their Zta-induced expression. We identified novel DNA recognition motifs, termed meZRE (methyl-Zta-responsive element), which Zta selectively binds in order to 'read' DNA in a methylation- and sequence-dependent manner unlike any other known protein. Zta is a homodimer but its binding characteristics to meZREs suggest a sequential, non-palindromic and bipartite DNA recognition element, which confers superior DNA binding compared to CpG-free ZREs. Our findings indicate that Zta has evolved to transactivate cytosine-methylated, hence repressed, silent promoters as a rule to overcome epigenetic silencing.