Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) is a member of the betaherpesvirus family that, unlike other herpesviruses, triggers a strong innate immune response in infected cells that includes transcription of the beta interferon gene via activation of interferon regulatory factor 3 (IRF3). IRF3 activation requires signaling from pattern recognition receptors that is initiated by their interaction with specific pathogen-associated molecules. However, while IRF3-activating pathways are increasingly well characterized, the cellular molecules involved in HCMV-mediated IRF3-dependent beta interferon transcription are virtually unknown. We undertook a systematic examination of new and established IRF3-terminal pathway components to identify those that are essential to HCMV-triggered IRF3 activation. We show here that IRF3 activation induced by HCMV infection involves the newly identified protein STING but, in contrast to infections with other herpesviruses, occurs independently of the adaptor molecule IPS-1. We also show that the protein DDX3 contributes to HCMV-triggered expression of beta interferon. Moreover, we identify Z-DNA binding protein 1 (ZBP1) as being essential for IRF3 activation and interferon beta expression triggered by HCMV, as well as being sufficient to enhance HCMV-stimulated beta interferon transcription and secretion. ZBP1 transcription was also found to be induced following exposure to HCMV in a JAK/STAT-dependent manner, thus perhaps also contributing to a positive feedback signal. Finally, we show that constitutive overexpression of ZBP1 inhibits HCMV replication. ZBP1 was recently identified as a cytosolic pattern recognition receptor of double-stranded DNA, and thus, we propose a model for HCMV-mediated IRF3 activation that involves HCMV-associated DNA as the principal innate immune-activating pathogen-associated molecular pattern.
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