Cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection is nonpermissive or persistent in many lymphoid and myeloid cell types but can be activated in differentiated macrophages. We have shown elsewhere that both the major immediate-early gene (MIE) and lytic cycle infectious progeny virus expression can be induced in otherwise nonpermissive monocyte-like U-937 cell cultures infected with either human CMV (HCMV) or simian CMV (SCMV) by treatment with the phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA). Two multicopy basal enhancer motifs within the SCMV MIE enhancer, namely, 11 copies of the 16-bp cyclic AMP response element (CRE) and 3 copies of novel 17-bp serum response factor (SRF) binding sites referred to as the SNE (SRF/NFkappaB-like element), as well as four classical NFkappaB sites within the HCMV version, contribute to TPA responsiveness in transient assays in monocyte and T-cell types. The SCMV SNE sites contain potential overlapping core recognition binding motifs for SRF, Rel/NFkappaB, ETS, and YY1 class transcription factors but fail to respond to either serum or tumor necrosis factor alpha. Therefore, to evaluate the mechanism of TPA responsiveness of the SNE motifs and of a related 16-bp SEE (SRF/ETS element) motif found in the HCMV and chimpanzee CMV MIE enhancers, we have examined the functional responses and protein binding properties of multimerized wild-type and mutant elements added upstream to the SCMV MIE or simian virus 40 minimal promoter regions in the U-937, K-562, HL-60, THP-1, and Jurkat cell lines. Unlike classical NFkappaB sites, neither the SNE nor the SEE motif responded to phosphatase inhibition by okadaic acid. However, the TPA responsiveness of both CMV elements proved to involve synergistic interactions between the core SRF binding site (CCATATATGG) and the adjacent inverted ETS binding motifs (TTCC), which correlated directly with formation of a bound tripartite complex containing both the cellular SRF and ELK-1 proteins. This protein complex was more abundant in U-937, K-562, and HeLa cell extracts than in Raji, HF, BALB/c 3T3, or HL-60 cells, but the binding activity was altered only twofold after TPA treatment. A 40-fold stimulation of chloramphenicol acetyltransferase activity mediated by four tandem repeats of the SNE could be induced within 2 h (and up to 250-fold within 6 h) after addition of TPA in DNA-transfected U-937 cells, indicating that the stimulation appeared likely to be a true protein kinase C-mediated signal transduction event rather than a differentiation response. Slight differences in the sequence of the core SRF binding site compared with that of the classical c-Fos promoter serum response element, together with differences in the spacing between the SRF and ETS motifs, appear to account for the inability of the SCMV SNEs to respond to serum induction
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