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Marek's disease virus (MDV), an alphaherpesvirus, is the causative agent of a lethal disease in chickens characterized by generalized nerve inflammation and rapid lymphoma development. The extensive colinearity of the MDV genome with those of related herpesviruses has eased functional characterization of many MDV genes. However, MDV carries a number of unique open reading frames (ORFs) that have not yet been investigated regarding their coding potentials and the functions of their products. Among these unique ORFs are two putative ORFs, ORF011 and ORF012, which are found at the extreme left end of the MDV unique long region. Using reverse transcriptase PCR, we showed that ORF011 and ORF012 are not individual genes but form a single gene through mRNA splicing of a small intron, resulting in the novel ORF012. We generated an ORF012-null virus using an infectious clone of MDV strain RB-1B. The deletion virus had a marked growth defect in vitro and could not be passaged in cultured cells, suggesting an essential role for the ORF012 product in virus replication. Further studies revealed that protein 012 (p012) localized to the nucleus in transfected and infected cells, and we identified by site-directed mutagenesis and green fluorescent protein (GFP) reporter fusion assays a nuclear localization signal (NLS) that was mapped to a 23-amino-acid sequence at the protein's C terminus. Nuclear export was blocked using leptomycin B, suggesting a potential role for p012 as a nuclear/cytoplasmic shuttling protein. Finally, p012 is phosphorylated at multiple residues, a modification that could possibly regulate its subcellular distribution.
Marek's disease virus (MDV) causes a devastating oncogenic disease in chickens with high morbidity and mortality. The costs for disease prevention reach several billion dollars annually. The functional investigation of MDV genes is necessary to understand its complex replication cycle, which eventually could help us to interfere with MDV and herpesviral pathogenesis. We have identified a previously unidentified phosphoprotein encoded by MDV ORF012. We were able to show experimentally that predicted splicing of the gene based on bioinformatics data does indeed occur during replication. The newly identified p012 is essential for MDV replication and localizes to the nucleus due to the presence of a transferable nuclear localization signal at its C terminus. Our results also imply that p012 could constitute a nucleocytoplasmic shuttle protein, a feature that could prove interesting and important.