Varicella–zoster virus (VZV) is the causative agent of chicken pox (varicella) and shingles (zoster). Although considered benign diseases, both varicella and zoster can cause complications. Zoster is painful and can lead to post herpetic neuralgia. VZV has also been linked to stroke, related to giant cell arteritis in some cases. Vaccines are available but the attenuated vaccine is not recommended in immunocompromised individuals and the efficacy of the glycoprotein E (gE) based subunit vaccine has not been evaluated for the prevention of varicella. A hallmark of VZV pathology is the formation of multinucleated cells termed polykaryocytes in skin lesions. This cell–cell fusion (abbreviated as cell fusion) is mediated by the VZV glycoproteins gB, gH and gL, which constitute the fusion complex of VZV, also needed for virion entry. Expression of gB, gH and gL during VZV infection and trafficking to the cell surface enables cell fusion. Recent evidence supports the concept that cellular processes are required for regulating cell fusion induced by gB/gH–gL. Mutations within the carboxyl domains of either gB or gH have profound effects on fusion regulation and dramatically restrict the ability of VZV to replicate in human skin. This loss of regulation modifies the transcriptome of VZV infected cells. Furthermore, cellular proteins have significant effects on the regulation of gB/gH–gL-mediated cell fusion and the replication of VZV, exemplified by the cellular phosphatase, calcineurin. This review provides the current state-of-the-art knowledge about the molecular controls of cell fusion-dependent pathogenesis caused by VZV.

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