Immortalization of B cells by Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) depends on the virally encoded EBNA2 protein. Although not related by sequence, the cellular Notch protein and EBNA2 share several biochemical and functional properties, such as interaction with CBF1 and the ability to activate transcription of a number of cellular and viral genes. Whether these similarities are coincidental or exemplify EBNA2 mimicry of evolutionarily conserved cellular signaling pathways is unclear. We therefore investigated whether activated forms of Notch could substitute for EBNA2 in maintaining the immortalized phenotype of EBV-infected B cells. To address this question, we devised a transcomplementation system using EREB2.5 cells. EREB2.5 cells are immortalized by EBV expressing a conditional estrogen receptor EBNA2 fusion protein (EREBNA2), and cellular proliferation is dependent on the availability of estrogen. Withdrawal of estrogen results in inactivation of EREBNA2, leading to growth arrest and eventually to cell death. Transduction of EREB2.5 cells with a lentiviral vector expressing wild-type EBNA2 rescued EREB2.5 cells from the growth-inhibitory effects of estrogen deprivation, in contrast to transduction with the lentivirus vector alone. EREB2.5 cells were also rescued by enforced expression of human Notch1IC after estrogen starvation, but this effect was restricted to cells expressing high levels of the transcription factor. Compared to wild-type EBNA2-expressing EREB2.5 cells, the Notch-expressing cells expanded more slowly after estrogen starvation, and once established, they continued to display a lower proliferation rate. Analysis of viral and cellular gene expression from transduced EREB2.5 cells after estrogen withdrawal indicated that both wild-type EBNA2- and Notch1IC-positive cells expressed c-Myc at levels similar to those found in parental EREB2.5 cells. However, the latter cells expressed LMP-1 far less efficiently than cells transduced with the wild-type EBNA2 gene. Cells rescued by either wild-type EBNA2 or Notch1IC expressed surface CD21 and CD23 proteins, but not CD10, indicating that induction of relevant type III latency markers was maintained. The data imply that both Notch and EBNA2 activate an important subset of cellular genes associated with type III latency and B-cell growth, while EBNA2 more efficiently induces important viral genes, such as LMP-1. Thus, exploitation of conserved Notch-related signaling pathways may represent a key mechanism by which EBNA2 contributes to EBV-induced cell immortalization
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