The antiapoptotic Bcl-2 and Bcl-X(L) proteins of mammals are converted into potent proapoptotic factors when they are cleaved by caspases, a family of apoptosis-inducing proteases (E. H.-Y. Cheng, D. G. Kirsch, R. J. Clem, R. Ravi, M. B. Kastan, A. Bedi, K. Ueno, and J. M. Hardwick, Science 278:1966- 1968, 1997; R. J. Clem, E. H.-Y. Cheng, C. L. Karp, D. G. Kirsch, K. Ueno, A. Takahashi, M. B. Kastan, D. E. Griffin, W. C. Earnshaw, M. A. Veliuona, and J. M. Hardwick, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 95:554-559, 1998). Gamma herpesviruses also encode homologs of the Bcl-2 family. All tested herpesvirus Bcl-2 homologs possess antiapoptotic activity, including the more distantly related homologs encoded by murine gammaherpesvirus 68 (cHV68) and bovine herpesvirus 4 (BHV4), as described here. To determine if viral Bcl-2 proteins can be converted into death factors, similar to their cellular counterparts, five herpesvirus Bcl-2 homologs from five different viruses were tested for their susceptibility to caspases. Only the viral Bcl-2 protein encoded by γHV68 was susceptible to caspase digestion. However, unlike the caspase cleavage products of cellular Bcl-2, Bcl-X(L), and Bid, which are potent inducers of apoptosis, the cleavage product of γHV68 Bcl-2 lacked proapoptotic activity. KSBcl-2, encoded by the Kaposi's sarcoma- associated herpesvirus, was the only viral Bcl-2 homolog that was capable of killing cells when expressed as an N-terminal truncation. However, because KSBcl-2 was not cleavage by caspases, the latent proapoptotic activity of KSBcl-2 apparently cannot be released. The Bcl-2 homologs encoded by herpesvirus saimiri, Epstein-Barr virus, and BHV4 were not cleaved by apoptotic cell extracts and did not possess latent proapoptotic activities. Thus, herpesvirus Bcl-2 homologs escape negative regulation by retaining their antiapoptotic activities and/or failing to be converted into proapoptotic proteins by caspases during programmed cell death.
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