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Open Access Research article

Epstein-Barr virus latency switch in human B-cells: a physico-chemical model

Maria Werner1*, Ingemar Ernberg2, JieZhi Zou2, Jenny Almqvist2 and Erik Aurell1

Author Affiliations

1 Computational Biological Physics, School of Computer Science and Communication, Royal Institute of Technology, AlbaNova University Center, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

2 Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology, Karolinska Institute, SE-171 77 Stockholm, Sweden

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BMC Systems Biology 2007, 1:40  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-1-40

Published: 31 August 2007



The Epstein-Barr virus is widespread in all human populations and is strongly associated with human disease, ranging from infectious mononucleosis to cancer. In infected cells the virus can adopt several different latency programs, affecting the cells' behaviour. Experimental results indicate that a specific genetic switch between viral latency programs, reprograms human B-cells between proliferative and resting states. Each of these two latency programs makes use of a different viral promoter, Cp and Qp, respectively. The hypothesis tested in this study is that this genetic switch is controlled by both human and viral transcription factors; Oct-2 and EBNA-1. We build a physico-chemical model to investigate quantitatively the dynamical properties of the promoter regulation and experimentally examine protein level variations between the two latency programs.


Our experimental results display significant differences in EBNA-1 and Oct-2 levels between resting and proliferating programs. With the model we identify two stable latency programs, corresponding to a resting and proliferating cell. The two programs differ in robustness and transcriptional activity. The proliferating state is markedly more stable, with a very high transcriptional activity from its viral promoter. We predict the promoter activities to be mutually exclusive in the two different programs, and our relative promoter activities correlate well with experimental data. Transitions between programs can be induced, by affecting the protein levels of our transcription factors. Simulated time scales are in line with experimental results.


We show that fundamental properties of the Epstein-Barr virus involvement in latent infection, with implications for tumor biology, can be modelled and understood mathematically. We conclude that EBNA-1 and Oct-2 regulation of Cp and Qp is sufficient to establish mutually exclusive expression patterns. Moreover, the modelled genetic control predict both mono- and bistable behavior and a considerable difference in transition dynamics, based on program stability and promoter activities. Both these phenomena we hope can be further investigated experimentally, to increase the understanding of this important switch. Our results also stress the importance of the little known regulation of human transcription factor Oct-2.