Epstein Barr virus (EBV) infects the majority of the human population, causing fatal diseases in a small proportion in conjunction with environmental factors. Following primary infection, EBV remains latent in the memory B cell population for life. Recurrent reactivation of the virus occurs, probably due to activation of the memory B-lymphocytes, resulting in viral replication and re-infection of B-lymphocytes. Methylation of the viral DNA at CpG motifs leads to silencing of viral gene expression during latency. Zta, the key viral protein that mediates the latency/reactivation balance, interacts with methylated DNA. Zta is a transcription factor for both viral and host genes. A sub-set of its DNA binding sites (ZREs) contains a CpG motif, which is recognised in its methylated form. Detailed analysis of the promoter of the viral gene BRLF1 revealed that interaction with a methylated CpG ZRE (RpZRE3) is key to overturning the epigenetic silencing of the gene.
Here we question whether we can use this information to identify which host genes contain promoters with similar response elements. A computational search of human gene promoters identified 274 targets containing the 7-nucleotide RpZRE3 core element. DNA binding analysis of Zta with 17 of these targets revealed that the flanking context of the core element does not have a profound effect on the ability of Zta to interact with the methylated sites. A second juxtaposed ZRE was observed for one promoter. Zta was able to interact with this site, although co-occupancy with the RpZRE3 core element was not observed.
This research demonstrates 274 human promoters have the potential to be regulated by Zta to overturn epigenetic silencing of gene expression during viral reactivation from latency.