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Cells survive by making many different proteins that each carry out specific tasks. To work correctly, each protein must be made and then folded into the right shape. Cells carefully monitor protein folding because unfolded proteins can compromise their viability. A protein called XBP1 is important in controlling how cells respond to unfolded proteins. Normally, cells contain a form of this protein called XBP1u, while increasing numbers of unfolded proteins trigger production of a form called XBP1s. The change from one form to the other is activated by a protein called IRE1.
Viruses often manipulate stress responses like the unfolded protein response to help take control of the cell and produce more copies of the virus. Murine cytomegalovirus, which is known as MCMV for short, is a herpes-like virus that infects mice; it stops IRE1 activation and XBP1s production during the later stages of infection. However, research had shown that the unfolded protein response was triggered for a short time at an early stage of infection with MCMV, and it was unclear why this might be.
Hinte et al. studied the effect of MCMV on cells grown in the laboratory. The experiments showed that a small dose of cell stress, namely activating the unfolded protein response briefly during early infection, helps to activate genes from the virus that allow it to take over the cell. Together, XBP1s and another protein called ATF6 help to switch on the viral genes. The virus also triggers IRE1 helping to reduce the levels of XBP1u, which could slow down the infection. Later, suppressing the unfolded protein response allows copies of the virus to be made faster to help spread the infection.
These findings reveal new details of how viruses precisely manipulate their host cells at different stages of infection. These insights could lead to new ways to manage or prevent viral infections.