Three proteins encoded by murine cytomegalovirus (MCMV)- gp34, encoded by m04 (m04/gp34), gp48, encoded by m06 (/n06/gp48), and gp40, encoded by m152 (m152/gp40) - act together to powerfully impact the ability of primed cytotoxic CD8 T lymphocytes (CTL) to kill virus-infected cells. Of these three, the impact of m152/gp40 on CTL lysis appears greater than would be expected based on its impact on cell surface major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I. In addition to MHC class I, m152/gp40 also downregulates the RAE-1 family of NKG2D ligands, which can provide costimulation for CD8 T cells. We hypothesized that m152/gp40 may impact CTL lysis so profoundly because it inhibits both antigen presentation and NKG2D-mediated costimulation. We therefore tested the extent to which m152/gp40's ability to inhibit CTL lysis of MCMV-infected cells could be accounted for by its inhibition of NKG2D signaling. As was predictable from the results reported in the literature, NKG2D ligands were not detected by NKG2D tetramer staining of cells infected with wild-type MCMV, whereas those infected with MCMV lacking m152/gp40 displayed measurable levels of the NKG2D ligand. To determine whether NKG2D signaling contributed to the ability of CTL to lyse these cells, we used a blocking anti-NKG2D antibody. Blocking NKG2D signaling did affect the killing of MCMV-infected cells for some epitopes. However, for all epitopes, the impact of m152/gp40 on CTL lysis was much greater than the impact of inhibition of NKG2D signaling. We conclude that the downregulation of NKG2D ligands by MCMV makes only a small contribution to the impact of m152/gp40 on CTL lysis and only for a small subset of CTL.
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