Superantigens are defined by their ability to stimulate a large fraction of T cells via interaction with the T cell receptor (TCR) V beta domain. Endogenous superantigens, classically termed minor lymphocyte-stimulating (Mls) antigens, were recently identified as products of open reading frames (ORF) in integrated proviral copies of mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV). We have described an infectious MMTV homologue of the classical endogenous superantigen Mls-1a (Mtv-7). The ORF molecules of both the endogenous Mtv-7 and the infectious MMTV(SW) interact with T cells expressing the TCR V beta 6, 7, 8.1, and 9 domains. Furthermore, the COOH termini of their ORF molecules, thought to confer TCR specificity, are very similar. Since successful transport of MMTV from the site of infection in the gut to the mammary gland depends on a functional immune system, we were interested in determining the early events after and requirements for MMTV infection. We show that MMTV(SW) infection induces a massive response of V beta 6+ CDC4+ T cells, which interact with the viral ORF. Concomitantly, we observed a B cell response and differentiation that depends on both the presence and stimulation of the superantigen-reactive T cells. Furthermore, we show that B cells are the main target of the initial MMTV infection as judged by the presence of the reverse-transcribed viral genome and ORF transcripts. Thus, we suggest that MMTV infection of B cells leads to ORF-mediated B-T cell interaction, which maintains and possibly amplifies viral infection.

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