Defining the Transcriptional Landscape during Cytomegalovirus Latency with Single-Cell RNA Sequencing

18 May 2018

Primary infection with human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) results in a lifelong infection due to its ability to establish latent infection, with one characterized viral reservoir being hematopoietic cells. Although reactivation from latency causes serious disease in immunocompromised individuals, our molecular understanding of latency is limited. Here, we delineate viral gene expression during natural HCMV persistent infection by analyzing the massive RNA-seq atlas generated by the Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project. This systematic analysis reveals that HCMV persistence in-vivo is prevalent in diverse tissues. Unexpectedly, we find only viral transcripts that resemble gene expression during various stages of lytic infection with no evidence of any highly restricted latency-associated viral gene expression program. To further define the transcriptional landscape during HCMV latent infection, we also used single cell RNA-seq and a tractable experimental latency model. In contrast to some current views on latency, we also find no evidence for any highly restricted latency-associated viral gene expression program. Instead, we reveal that latency-associated gene expression largely mirrors a late lytic viral program albeit at much lower levels of expression. Overall, our work has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of HCMV persistence and suggests that latency is governed mainly by quantitative changes, with a limited number of qualitative changes, in viral gene expression.