Myxoma virus is a leporipoxvirus of New World rabbits (Sylvilagus sp.) that induces a rapidly lethal infection known as myxomatosis in the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Like all poxviruses, myxoma virus encodes a plethora of proteins to circumvent or inhibit a variety of host antiviral immune mechanisms. M-T7, the most abundantly secreted protein of myxoma virus-infected cells, was originally identified as an interferon-γ receptor homolog (Upton, Mossman, and McFadden, Science 258, 1369-1372, 1992). Here, we demonstrate that M-T7 is dispensable for virus replication in cultured cells but is a critical virulence factor for virus pathogenesis in European rabbits. Disruption of both copies of the M-T7 gene in myxoma virus was achieved by the deletion of 372 bp of M-T7 coding sequences, replacement with a selectable marker, p7.5Ecogpt, and selection of a recombinant virus (vMyxlac-T7gpt) resistant to mycophenolic acid. vMyxlac-T7gpt expressed no detectable M-T7 protein and infected cell supernatants were devoid of any detectable interferon-γ binding activities. Immunohistochemical staining with anti-β-galactosidase and anti-CD43 antibodies demonstrated that in vMyxlac-T7gpt-infected rabbits the loss of M-T7 not only caused a dramatic reduction in disease symptoms and viral dissemination to secondary sites, but also dramatically influenced host leukocyte behavior. Notably, primary lesions in wild-type virus infections were generally underlayed by large masses of inflammatory cells that did not effectively migrate into the dermal sites of viral replication, whereas in vMyxlac-T79pt infections this apparent block to leukocyte influx was relieved. A second major phenotypic distinction noted for the M-T7 knockout virus was the extensive activation of lymphocytes in secondary immune organs, particularly the spleen and lymph nodes, by Day 4 of the infection. This is in stark contrast to infection by wild-type myxoma virus, which results in relatively little, if any, cellular activation of germinal centers of spleen and lymph node by Day 4. We conclude that M-T7 functions early in infection to (1) retard inflammatory cell migration into infected tissues and (2) disrupt the communication between sentinel immune cells at the site of primary virus infection in the subdermis and lymphocytes in the secondary lymphoid organs, thereby disabling the host from mounting an effective cellular immune response. To summarize, in addition to neutralizing host interferon-γ at infected sites, we propose that M-T7 protein also modifies leukocyte traffic in the vicinity of virus lesions, thus effectively severing the link between antigen presenting cells of the infected tissue and the effector lymphocytes of the peripheral immune organs.
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