Herpes simplex virus type 1 thymidine kinase exhibits a strikingly broad substrate specificity. It is capable of phosphorylating deoxythymidine and deoxyuridine as does human thymidine kinase, deoxycytidine as does human deoxycytidine kinase, the cytosolic kinase whose amino acid sequence it most closely resembles, and thymidylate as does human thymidylate kinase. Following peripheral inoculation of mice, viral thymidine kinase is ordinarily required for viral replication in ganglia and for reactivation from latency following ganglionic explant. To determine which activity of the viral kinase is important for replication and reactivation in mouse ganglia, recombinant viruses lacking viral thymidine kinase but expressing individual human kinases were constructed. Each recombinant virus expressed the appropriate kinase activity with early kinetics following infection of cultured cells. The virus expressing human thymidine kinase exhibited thymidine phosphorylation activity equivalent to ~5% of that of wild-type virus in a quantitative plaque autoradiography assay. Nevertheless, it was competent for ganglionic replication and reactivation following corneal inoculation of mice. The virus expressing human thymidylate kinase was partially competent for these activities despite failing to express detectable thymidine kinase activity. The virus expressing human deoxycytidine kinase failed to replicate acutely in neurons or to reactivate from latency. Therefore, it appears that low levels of thymidine phosphorylation suffice to fulfill the role of the viral enzyme in ganglia and that this role can be partially fulfilled by thymidylate kinase activity alone.
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