In light of the important role of apoptotic cell death in the pathogenesis of several viral infections, we asked whether the cytopathogenicity evoked by rubella virus (RV) might also involve apoptotic mechanisms. The To-336 strain of RV induced apoptosis in Vero and RK-13 cells, but not in fibroblast cell lines. UV-inactivated RV virions did not elicit the apoptotic response, indicating that productive infection is required for the induction of cell death. Both p53 and p21 protein levels were highly elevated in RV-infected Vero cells. The level of p21 mRNA was increased, while expression of the p53 gene was unaffected by RV infection. A dominant-negative p53 mutant (p53(W24B)) conferred partial protection from RV-induced apoptosis. These data implicate a p53-dependent apoptotic pathway in the cytopathogenicity of RV, thereby suggesting a mechanism by which RV exerts its teratogenic effects.
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