Marek’s Disease Virus Virulence Genes Encode Circular RNAs

Alexis S. Chasseur, Gabrielle Trozzi, Céline Istasse, Astrid Petit, Perrine Rasschaert, Caroline Denesvre, Benedikt B. Kaufer, Luca D. Bertzbach, Benoît Muylkens, Damien Coupeau

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Circular RNAs (circRNAs) are a recently rediscovered class of functional noncoding RNAs that are involved in gene regulation and cancer development. Next-generation sequencing approaches identified circRNA fragments and sequences underlying circularization events in virus-induced cancers. In the present study, we performed viral circRNA expression analysis and full-length sequencing in infections with Marek’s disease virus (MDV), which serves as a model for herpesvirus-induced tumorigenesis. We established inverse PCRs to identify and characterize circRNA expression from the repeat regions of the MDV genome during viral replication, latency, and reactivation. We identified a large variety of viral circRNAs through precise mapping of full-length circular transcripts and detected matching sequences with several viral genes. Hot spots of circRNA expression included the transcriptional unit of the major viral oncogene encoding the Meq protein and the latency-associated transcripts (LATs). Moreover, we performed genome-wide bioinformatic analyses to extract back-splice junctions from lymphoma-derived samples. Using this strategy, we found that circRNAs were abundantly expressed in vivo from the same key virulence genes. Strikingly, the observed back-splice junctions do not follow a unique canonical pattern, compatible with the U2-dependent splicing machinery. Numerous noncanonical junctions were observed in viral circRNA sequences characterized from in vitro and in vivo infections. Given the importance of the genes involved in the transcription of these circRNAs, our study contributes to our understanding and complexity of this deadly pathogen. IMPORTANCE Circular RNAs (circRNAs) were rediscovered in recent years both in physiological and pathological contexts, such as in cancer. Viral circRNAs are encoded by at least two human herpesviruses, the Epstein Barr virus and the Kaposi’s Sarcoma-associated herpesvirus, both associated with the development of lymphoma. Marek’s disease virus (MDV) is a well-established animal model to study virus-induced lymphoma but circRNA expression has not been reported for MDV yet. Our study provided the first evidence of viral circRNAs that were expressed at key steps of the MDV lifecycle using genome-wide analyses of circRNAs. These circRNAs were primarily found in transcriptional units that corresponded to the major MDV virulence factors. In addition, we established a bioinformatics pipeline that offers a new tool to identify circular RNAs in other herpesviruses. This study on the circRNAs provided important insights into major MDV virulence genes and herpesviruses-mediated gene dysregulation.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Virology
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2022


  • alternative transcripts
  • circular RNAs
  • herpesvirus-induced oncogenesis
  • Marek’s disease virus


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