The Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) protein LMP1 is considered to be a functional homologue of the CD40 receptor. However, in contrast to the latter, LMP1 is a constitutively active signaling molecule. To compare B cell-specific LMP1 and CD40 signaling in an unambiguous manner, we generated transgenic mice conditionally expressing a CD40/LMP1 fusion protein, which retained the LMP1 cytoplasmic tail but has lost the constitutive activity of LMP1 and needs to be activated by the CD40 ligand. We show that LMP1 signaling can completely substitute CD40 signaling in B cells, leading to normal B-cell development, activation, and immune responses including class-switch recombination, germinal center formation, and somatic hypermutation. In addition, the LMP1-signaling domain has a unique property in that it can induce class-switch recombination to IgG1 independent of cytokines. Thus, our data indicate that LMP1 has evolved to imitate T-helper cell function allowing activation, proliferation, and differentiation of EBV-infected B cells independent of T cells.
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