The herpes simplex virus (HSV) virion host shutoff protein (vhs) encoded by gene UL41 is an mRNA-specific RNase that triggers accelerated degradation of host and viral mRNAs in infected cells. We report here that vhs is also able to modulate reporter gene expression without greatly altering the levels of the target mRNA in transient-transfection assays conducted in HeLa cells. We monitored the effects of vhs on a panel of bicistronic reporter constructs bearing a variety of internal ribosome entry sites (IRESs) located between two test cistrons. As expected, vhs inhibited the expression of the 5′ cistrons of all of these constructs; however, the response of the 3′ cistron varied with the IRES: expression driven from the wild-type EMCV IRES was strongly suppressed, while expression controlled by a mutant EMCV IRES and the cellular ApaF1, BiP, and DAP5 IRES elements was strongly activated. In addition, several HSV type 1 (HSV-1) 5′ untranslated region (5′ UTR) sequences also served as positive vhs response elements in this assay. IRES activation was also observed in 293 and HepG2 cells, but no such response was observed in Vero cells. Mutational analysis has yet to uncouple the ability of vhs to activate 3′ cistron expression from its shutoff activity. Remarkably, repression of 5′ cistron expression could be observed under conditions where the levels of the reporter RNA were not correspondingly reduced. These data provide strong evidence that vhs can modulate gene expression at the level of translation and that it is able to activate cap-independent translation through specific cis-acting elements
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