During productive infection, human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) UL44 transcription initiates at three distinct start sites that are differentially regulated. Two of the start sites, the distal and the proximal, are active at early times, whereas the middle start site is active only at late times after infection. The UL44 early viral gene product is essential for viral DNA synthesis. The UL44 gene product from the late viral promoter affects primarily viral gene expression at late times after infection rather than viral DNA synthesis (H. Isomura, M. F. Stinski, A. Kudoh, S. Nakayama, S. Iwahori, Y. Sato, and T. Tsurumi, J. Virol. 81:6197, 2007). The UL44 early viral promoters have a canonical TATA sequence, "TATAA." In contrast, the UL44 late viral promoter has a noncanonical TATA sequence. Using recombinant viruses, we found that the noncanonical TATA sequence is required for the accumulation of late viral transcripts. The GC boxes that surround the middle TATA element did not affect the kinetics or the start site of UL44 late transcription. Replacement of the distal TATA element with a noncanonical TATA sequence did not affect the kinetics of transcription or the transcription start site, but it did induce an alternative transcript at late times after infection. The data indicate that a noncanonical TATA box is used at late times after HCMV infection.
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