Herpesviruses are ubiquitous and infection by some, like Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), is nearly universal. To persist, EBV must periodically switch from a latent to a replicative/lytic phase. This productive phase is responsible for most herpesvirus-associated diseases. EBV encodes a latency-to-lytic switch protein which upon activation sets off a vectorially-constrained cascade of gene expression that results in production of infectious virus. While triggering expression of the switch protein ZEBRA is essential to lytic cycle entry, sustaining its expression is equally important to avoid premature termination of the lytic cascade. We report that the viral protein kinase (vPK), encoded by a gene that is kinetically downstream of the lytic switch, sustains expression of ZEBRA, amplifies the lytic cascade increasing virus production, and importantly, prevents abortive lytic cycle. We find that vPK, through a non-canonical site phosphorylation, activates the cellular PI3-kinase-related kinase ATM to cause phosphorylation of the heterochromatin enforcer KAP1/TRIM28 even in the absence of EBV genomes or other EBV proteins. Phosphorylation of KAP1 renders it unable to restrain ZEBRA, thereby further derepressing and sustaining its expression to culminate in virus production. This partnership with a host kinase and a transcriptional corepressor enables retrograde regulation by vPK of ZEBRA – an observation that is counter to the unidirectional regulation of gene expression reminiscent of most DNA viruses.
Herpesviruses infect nearly all humans and persist quiescently for the life of the host. These viruses intermittently activate into the lytic phase to produce infectious virus, thereby causing disease. To ensure that lytic activation is not prematurely terminated, expression of the virally-encoded lytic switch protein needs to be sustained. In studying Epstein-Barr virus, one of the most prevalent human herpesviruses that also causes cancer, we have discovered that a viral kinase activated by the viral lytic switch protein partners with a cellular kinase to deactivate a silencer of the lytic switch protein, thereby providing a positive feedback loop to ensure successful completion of the viral productive phase. Our findings highlight key nodes of interaction between the host and virus that could be exploited to treat lytic phase-associated diseases by terminating the lytic phase or kill cancer cells harboring herpesviruses by accelerating the completion of the lytic cascade.