The murine cytomegalovirus m02 gene family encodes putative type I membrane glycoproteins named m02 through m16. A subset of these genes were fused to an epitope tag and cloned into an expression vector. In transfected and murine cytomegalovirus-infected cells, m02, m04, m05, m06, m07, m09, m10, and m12 localized to cytoplasmic structures near the nucleus, whereas m08 and m13 localized to a filamentous structure surrounding the nucleus. Substitution mutants lacking the m02 gene (SMsubm02) or the entire m02 gene family (SMsubm02-16) grew like their wild-type parent in cultured cells. However, whereas SMsubm02 was as pathogenic as the wild-type virus, SMsubm02-16 was markedly less virulent. SMsubm02-16 produced less infectious virus in most organs compared to wild-type virus in BALB/c and C57BL/6J mice, but it replicated to wild-type levels in the organs of immunodeficient γc/Rag2 mice, lacking multiple cell types including natural killer cells, and in C57BL/6J mice depleted of natural killer cells. These results argue that one or more members of the m02 gene family antagonize natural killer cell-mediated immune surveillance.
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