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The herpesvirus family contains several of the most important human viral pathogens. Clinically, the herpesviruses exhibit a spectrum of diseases. Some have a wide host-cell range, and others have a narrow host-cell range. The outstanding property of herpesviruses is their ability to establish lifelong persistent infections in their hosts and to undergo periodic reactivation. Their frequent reactivation in immunosuppressed patients causes serious health complications. Curiously, the reactivated infection may be clinically quite different from the disease caused by the primary infection. Herpesviruses possess a large number of genes, some of which have proved to be susceptible to antiviral chemotherapy.

The herpesviruses that commonly infect humans include herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 (HSV-1, HSV-2), varicella-zoster virus, cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), herpesviruses 6 and 7, and herpesvirus 8 (Kaposi sarcoma-associated herpesvirus [KSHV]). Herpes B virus of monkeys can also infect humans. There are nearly 100 viruses of the herpes group that infect many different animal species.

Important properties of herpesviruses are summarized in Table 33-1.

Table 33-1 Important Properties of Herpesviruses

Structure and Composition

Herpesviruses are large viruses. Different members of the group share architectural details and are indistinguishable by electron microscopy. All herpesviruses have a core of double-stranded DNA, in the form of a toroid, surrounded by a protein coat that exhibits icosahedral symmetry and has 162 capsomeres. The nucleocapsid is surrounded by an envelope that is derived from the nuclear membrane of the infected cell and contains viral glycoprotein spikes about 8 nm long. An amorphous, sometimes asymmetric structure between the capsid and envelope is designated the tegument. The enveloped form measures 150–200 nm; the "naked" virion, 125 nm.

The double-stranded DNA genome (125–240 kbp) is linear. A striking feature of herpesvirus DNAs is their sequence arrangement (Figure 33-1). Herpesvirus genomes possess terminal and internal repeated sequences. Some members, such as the HSVs, undergo genome rearrangements, giving rise to different genome "isomers." The base composition of herpesvirus DNAs varies from 31% to 75% (G + C). There is little DNA homology among different herpesviruses except for HSV-1 and HSV-2, which show 50% sequence homology, and human herpesviruses 6 and 7 (HHV-6 and HHV-7), which display limited (30–50%) sequence homology. Treatment with restriction endonucleases yields characteristically different cleavage patterns for herpesviruses and even for different strains of each type. This "fingerprinting" of strains allows epidemiologic tracing of a given strain.

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