Abstract: Cell-free and cell-to-cell spread of herpesviruses involves a core fusion apparatus comprised of the fusion protein glycoprotein B (gB) and the regulatory factor gH/gL. The human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) gH/gL/gO and gH/gL/pUL128-131 facilitate spread in different cell types. The gO and pUL128-131 components bind distinct receptors, but how the gH/gL portions of the complexes functionally compare is not understood. We previously characterized a panel of gL mutants by transient expression and showed that many were impaired for gH/gL-gB-dependent cell-cell fusion but were still able to form gH/gL/pUL128-131 and induce receptor interference. Here, the gL mutants were engineered into the HCMV BAC clones TB40/e-BAC4 (TB), TR, and Merlin (ME), which differ in their utilization of the two complexes for entry and spread. Several of the gL mutations disproportionately impacted gH/gL/gO-dependent entry and spread over gH/gL/pUL128-131 processes. The effects of some mutants could be explained by impaired gH/gL/gO assembly, but other mutants impacted gH/gL/gO function. Soluble gH/gL/gO containing the L201 mutant failed to block HCMV infection despite unimpaired binding to PDGFRα, indicating the existence of other important gH/gL/gO receptors. Another mutant (L139) enhanced the gH/gL/gO-dependent cell-free spread of TR, suggesting a "hyperactive" gH/gL/gO. Recently published crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy studies suggest structural conservation of the gH/gL underlying gH/gL/gO and gH/gL/pUL128-131. However, our data suggest important differences in the gH/gL of the two complexes and support a model in which gH/gL/gO can provide an activation signal for gB. IMPORTANCE The endemic betaherpesvirus HCMV circulates in human populations as a complex mixture of genetically distinct variants, establishes lifelong persistent infections, and causes significant disease in neonates and immunocompromised adults. This study capitalizes on our recent characterizations of three genetically distinct HCMV BAC clones to discern the functions of the envelope glycoprotein complexes gH/gL/gO and gH/gL/pUL128-13, which are promising vaccine targets that share the herpesvirus core fusion apparatus component, gH/gL. Mutations in the shared gL subunit disproportionally affected gH/gL/gO, demonstrating mechanistic differences between the two complexes, and may provide a basis for more refined evaluations of neutralizing antibodies.
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