Marek's disease, a lymphoproliferative disease of chickens, is caused by an alphaherpesvirus, Marek's disease virus (MDV). This virus encodes a virokine, vIL-8, with general homology to cellular CXC chemokines such as interleukin-8 (IL-8) and Gro-α. To study the function of vIL-8 gene, we deleted both copies of vIL-8 residing in the terminal repeat long and internal repeat long region of the viral genome and generated a mutant virus with vIL-8 deleted, rMd5/ΔvIL-8. Growth kinetics study showed that vIL-8 gene is dispensable for virus replication in cell culture. In vivo, the vIL-8 gene is involved in early cytolytic infections in lymphoid organs, as evidenced by limited viral antigen expression of rMd5/ΔvIL-8. However, the rMd5/ΔvIL-8 virus is unimpaired in virus replication in the feather follicle epithelium. vIL-8 does not appear to be important for establishment of latency, since rMd5/ΔvIL-8 and the wild-type virus have similar viremia titers at 14 days postinfection, a period when the virus titer comes primarily from reactivated latent genomes. Nevertheless, because of the impaired cytolytic infections, the overall transformation efficiency of the virus with vIL-8 deleted is much lower, as reflected by the reduced number of transformed cells at 5 weeks postinoculation and the presence of fewer gross tumors. Importantly, the revertant virus that restored the expression of vIL-8 gene also restored the wild-type phenotype, indicating the deficient phenotypes are results of vIL-8 deletion. One of the interesting differences between the MDV vIL-8 gene and its cellular counterpart is the presence of a DKR (Asp-Lys-Arg) motif instead of ELR (Glu-Leu-Arg) preceding the invariable CXC motif. To study the significance of this variation, we generated recombinant MDV, rMd5/vIL-8-ELR, carrying the ELR motif. Both in vitro and in vivo studies revealed that the DKR motif is as competent as ELR in pathogenesis of MDV.
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