22 January 2018
The oncogenic retrovirus human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1) encodes Tax, an activator of both viral replication and cellular oncogenic pathways. Despite the potent activities of Tax, its precise roles in pathogenesis remain unclear, since it is faintly expressed in vivo. This study shows that sporadic and transient Tax expression is observed in a small subpopulation of HTLV-1–induced leukemic cells. This limited Tax expression is critical for survival of the whole population through ignition of antiapoptotic signals. Tax is induced by various stresses, suggesting that Tax efficiently protects cells from apoptosis and reactivates virus from reservoirs under conditions of cellular stress. It is an elaborated strategy of HTLV-1 to evade host immunity and enable persistence in vivo.
Viruses causing chronic infection artfully manipulate infected cells to enable viral persistence in vivo under the pressure of immunity. Human T-cell leukemia virus type 1 (HTLV-1) establishes persistent infection mainly in CD4+ T cells in vivo and induces leukemia in this subset. HTLV-1–encoded Tax is a critical transactivator of viral replication and a potent oncoprotein, but its significance in pathogenesis remains obscure due to its very low level of expression in vivo. Here, we show that Tax is expressed in a minor fraction of leukemic cells at any given time, and importantly, its expression spontaneously switches between on and off states. Live cell imaging revealed that the average duration of one episode of Tax expression is ∼19 hours. Knockdown of Tax rapidly induced apoptosis in most cells, indicating that Tax is critical for maintaining the population, even if its short-term expression is limited to a small subpopulation. Single-cell analysis and computational simulation suggest that transient Tax expression triggers antiapoptotic machinery, and this effect continues even after Tax expression is diminished; this activation of the antiapoptotic machinery is the critical event for maintaining the population. In addition, Tax is induced by various cytotoxic stresses and also promotes HTLV-1 replication. Thus, it seems that Tax protects infected cells from apoptosis and increases the chance of viral transmission at a critical moment. Keeping the expression of Tax minimal but inducible on demand is, therefore, a fundamental strategy of HTLV-1 to promote persistent infection and leukemogenesis.