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Cytomegaloviruses (CMVs) are highly adapted to their host species resulting in strict species specificity. Hence, in vivo examination of all aspects of CMV biology employs animal models using host-specific CMVs. Infection of rhesus macaques (RM) with rhesus CMV (RhCMV) has been established as a representative model for infection of humans with HCMV due to the close evolutionary relationships of both host and virus. However, the commonly used 68-1 strain of RhCMV has been passaged in fibroblasts for decades resulting in multiple genomic changes due to tissue culture adaptation that cause reduced viremia in RhCMV-naïve animals and limited shedding compared to low passage isolates. Using sequence information from primary RhCMV isolates we constructed a full-length (FL) RhCMV by repairing all presumed mutations in the 68-1 bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC). Inoculation of adult, immunocompetent, RhCMV-naïve RM with the reconstituted virus resulted in significant replication in the blood similar to primary isolates of RhCMV and furthermore led to extensive viremia in many tissues at day 14 post infection. In contrast, viral dissemination and viremia was greatly reduced upon deletion of genes also lacking in 68-1. Transcriptome analysis of infected tissues further revealed that chemokine-like genes deleted in 68-1 are among the most highly expressed viral transcripts both in vitro and in vivo consistent with an important immunomodulatory function of the respective proteins. We conclude that FL-RhCMV displays in vitro and in vivo characteristics of a wildtype virus while being amenable to genetic modifications through BAC recombineering techniques.

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