Virus-host interactions are frequently studied in bulk cell populations, obscuring cell-to-cell variation. Here we investigate endogenous herpesvirus gene expression at the single-cell level, combining a sensitive and robust fluorescent in situ hybridization platform with multiparameter flow cytometry, to study the expression of gammaherpesvirus non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) during lytic replication, latent infection and reactivation in vitro. This method allowed robust detection of viral ncRNAs of murine gammaherpesvirus 68 (γHV68), Kaposi’s sarcoma associated herpesvirus and Epstein-Barr virus, revealing variable expression at the single-cell level. By quantifying the inter-relationship of viral ncRNA, viral mRNA, viral protein and host mRNA regulation during γHV68 infection, we find heterogeneous and asynchronous gene expression during latency and reactivation, with reactivation from latency identified by a distinct gene expression profile within rare cells. Further, during lytic replication with γHV68, we find many cells have limited viral gene expression, with only a fraction of cells showing robust gene expression, dynamic RNA localization, and progressive infection. Lytic viral gene expression was enhanced in primary fibroblasts and by conditions associated with enhanced viral replication, with multiple subpopulations of cells present in even highly permissive infection conditions. These findings, powered by single-cell analysis integrated with automated clustering algorithms, suggest inefficient or abortive γHV infection in many cells, and identify substantial heterogeneity in viral gene expression at the single-cell level.
The gammaherpesviruses are a group of DNA tumor viruses that establish lifelong infection. How these viruses infect and manipulate cells has frequently been studied in bulk populations of cells. While these studies have been incredibly insightful, there is limited understanding of how virus infection proceeds within a single cell. Here we present a new approach to quantify gammaherpesvirus gene expression at the single-cell level. This method allows us to detect cell-to-cell variation in the expression of virus non-coding RNAs, an important and understudied class of RNAs which do not encode for proteins. By examining multiple features of virus gene expression, this method further reveals significant variation in infection between cells across multiple stages of infection, even in conditions generally thought to be highly uniform. These studies emphasize that gammaherpesvirus infection can be surprisingly heterogeneous when viewed at the level of the individual cell. Because this approach can be broadly applied across diverse viruses, this study affords new opportunities to understand the complexity of virus infection within single cells.