The herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) ICP34.5 gene is a neurovirulence gene in mice. In addition, some ICP34.5 mutants have been reported to have a reduced efficiency of induced reactivation as measured by in vitro explantation of latently infected mouse ganglia. However, since spontaneous reactivation is almost nonexistent in mice, nothing has been reported on the effect of ICP34.5 mutants on spontaneous reactivation in vivo. To examine this, we have deleted both copies of the ICP34.5 neurovirulence gene from a strain of HSV-1 (McKrae) that has a high spontaneous reactivation rate in rabbits and used this mutant to infect rabbit eyes. All rabbits infected with the ICP34.5 mutant virus (d34.5) survived, even at challenge doses greater than 4 x 107 PFU per eye. In contrast, a 200-fold-lower challenge dose of 2 x 105 PFU per eye was lethal for approximately 50% of rabbits infected with either the wild-type McKrae parental virus or a rescued ICP34.5 mutant in which both copies of the ICP34.5 gene were restored. In mice, the 50% lethal dose of the ICP34.5 mutant was over 106 PFU, compared with a value of less than 10 PFU for the rescued virus. The ICP34.5 mutant was restricted for replication in rabbit and mouse eyes and mouse trigeminal ganglia in vivo. The spontaneous reactivation rate in rabbits for the mutant was 1.4% as determined by culturing tear films for the presence of reactivated virus. This was more than 10-fold lower than the spontaneous reactivation rate determined for the rescued virus (19.6%) and was highly significant (P < 0.0001, Fisher exact test). Southern analysis confirmed that the reactivated virus retained both copies of the ICP34.5 deletion. Thus, this report demonstrates that (i) the ICP34.5 gene, known to be a neurovirulence gene in mice, is also important for virulence in rabbits and (ii) in vivo spontaneous reactivation of HSV-1 in the rabbit ocular model, although reduced, can occur in the absence of the ICP34.5 gene.
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