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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Methylation profiling of Epstein-Barr virus immediate-early gene promoters, BZLF1 and BRLF1 in tumors of epithelial, NK- and B-cell origins

Lili Li1, Xianwei Su1, Gigi Ching Gee Choi1, Ya Cao2, Richard F Ambinder3 and Qian Tao13*

Author Affiliations

1 Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory, Department of Clinical Oncology, State Key Laboratory of Oncology in South China, Sir YK Pao Center for Cancer and Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and CUHK Shenzhen Research Institute, Hong Kong, China

2 Cancer Research Institute, Xiangya School of Medicine, Central South University, Changsha, China

3 Johns Hopkins Singapore and Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA

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BMC Cancer 2012, 12:125  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-12-125

Published: 29 March 2012



Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) establishes its latency in EBV-associated malignancies, accompanied by occasionally reactivated lytic cycle. Promoter CpG methylation of EBV genome plays an essential role in maintaining viral latency. Two immediate-early (IE) genes, BZLF1 and BRLF1, induce the switch from latent to lytic infection. Studies of methylation-dependent binding of BZLF1 and BRLF1 to EBV promoters have been well reported, but little is known about the methylation status of BZLF1 and BRLF1 promoters (Zp and Rp) in tumor samples.


We evaluated the methylation profiles of Zp and Rp by methylation-specific PCR (MSP) and bisulfite genomic sequencing (BGS), as well as BZLF1 and BRLF1 expression by semiquantitative reverse transcription (RT)-PCR in tumors of epithelial, NK- and B-cell origins.


We found that both Zp and Rp were hypermethylated in all studied EBV-positive cell lines and tumors of lymphoid (B- or NK cell) or epithelial origin, while unmethylated Zp and Rp alleles were detected in cell lines expressing BZLF1 and BRLF1. Following azacytidine treatment or combined with trichostatin A (TSA), the expression of BZLF1 and BRLF1 was restored along with concomitant promoter demethylation, which subsequently induced the reactivation of early lytic gene BHRF1 and late lytic gene BLLF1.


Hypermethylation of Zp and Rp mediates the frequent silencing of BZLF1 and BRLF1 in EBV-associated tumors, which could be reactivated by demethylation agent and ultimately initiated the EBV lytic cascade.