Poxviruses are known to contain a large number of open reading frames, particularly near the termini of the viral genome, that are not required for growth in tissue culture. However, many of these these gene products are believed to play important roles in determining the virulence of the virus by modulating the host immune response to the infection. Recently it has been shown that Shope fibroma virus encodes, within the terminal inverted repeats, a protein (T2) related to the cellular tumor necrosis factor receptor (TNFR) and which specifically binds both TNFa and TNFβ We have sequenced the terminal regions of two otherLeporipoxviruses (myxoma virus and malignant rabbit fibroma virus) that are extremely invasive and capable of inducing extensive immunosuppression in rabbits and demonstrate that they also encode a closely related T2 homolog with all the structural motifs predicted for a secreted TNF binding protein. To investigate the biological role of the T2 protein, we have inactivated the myxoma virus T2 gene within each copy of the viral TIR by the insertion of a dominant selectable marker (Escherichia coli guanosine phosphoribosyltransferase) and selection of the recombinant virus in the presence of mycophenolic acid. The success of the inactivation of both copies of T2 was confirmed by the loss a broad protein band (52-56 kDa) of the predicted size for T2 from the profile of proteins secreted from mutant virus-infected BGMK cells at earlytimes after infection. Although the T2-minus recombinant myxoma virus grew normally in tissue culture, upon infection of susceptible rabbits the viral disease was observed to be significantly attenuated. The majority of infected rabbits were able to mount an effective immune response to the infection and completely recovered. These survivor rabbits became immune to subsequent challenge with wild type myxoma virus. We conclude that the T2 viral protein is an important secreted virulence factor and that it in all likelihood functions by compromising the antiviral effects of TNF. We propose the term "viroceptor" to describe viral-encoded homologs of cellular lymphokine receptors whose function is to intercept the activity of the cognate lymphokine in order to short circuit the host immune response to the viral infection.
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