Syncytins are envelope genes of retroviral origin that have been co-opted by the host to mediate a specialized function in placentation. Two of these genes have already been identified in primates, as well as two distinct, non orthologous genes in rodents.
Here we identified within the rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus-which belongs to the lagomorpha order- an envelope (env) gene of retroviral origin with the characteristic features of a bona fide syncytin, that we named syncytin-Ory1. An in silico search for full-length env genes with an uninterrupted open reading frame within the rabbit genome first identified two candidate genes that were tested for their specific expression in the placenta by quantitative RT-PCR of RNA isolated from a large set of tissues. This resulted in the identification of an env gene with placenta-specific expression and belonging to a family of endogenous retroelements present at a limited copy number in the rabbit genome. Functional characterization of the identified placenta-expressed env gene after cloning in a CMV-driven expression vector and transient transfection experiments, demonstrated both fusogenic activity in an ex vivo cell-cell fusion assay and infectivity of pseudotypes. The receptor for the rabbit syncytin-Ory1 was found to be the same as that for human syncytin-1, i.e. the previously identified ASCT2 transporter. This was demonstrated by a co-culture fusion assay between hamster A23 cells transduced with an expression vector for ASCT2 and A23 cells transduced with syncytin-Ory1. Finally, in situ hybridization of rabbit placenta sections with a syncytin-Ory1 probe revealed specific expression at the level of the junctional zone between the placental lobe and the maternal decidua, where the invading syncytial fetal tissue contacts the maternal decidua to form the labyrinth, consistent with a role in the formation of the syncytiotrophoblast. The syncytin-Ory1 gene is found in Leporidae but not in Ochotonidae, and should therefore have entered the lagomorpha order 12-30 million years ago.
The identification of a novel syncytin gene within a third order of mammals displaying syncytiotrophoblast formation during placentation strongly supports the notion that on several occasions retroviral infections have resulted in the independent capture of genes that have been positively selected for a convergent physiological role.
In evolution of mammals, some of essential genes for placental development are known to be of retroviral origin, as syncytin-1 derived from an envelope (env) gene of an endogenous retrovirus (ERV) aids in the cell fusion of placenta in humans. Although the placenta serves the same function in all placental mammals, env-derived genes responsible for trophoblast cell fusion and maternal immune tolerance differ among species and remain largely unidentified in the bovine species. To examine env-derived genes playing a role in the bovine placental development comprehensively, we determined the transcriptomic profiles of bovine conceptuses during three crucial windows of implantation periods using a high-throughput sequencer. The sequence reads were mapped into the bovine genome, in which ERV candidates were annotated using RetroTector© (7,624 and 1,542 for ERV-derived and env-derived genes, respectively). The mapped reads showed that approximately 18% (284 genes) of env-derived genes in the genome were expressed during placenta formation, and approximately 4% (63 genes) were detected for all days examined. We verified three env-derived genes that are expressed in trophoblast cells by polymerase chain reaction. Out of these three, the sequence of env-derived gene with the longest open reading frame (named BERV-P env) was found to show high expression levels in trophoblast cell lines and to be similar to those of syncytin-Car1 genes found in dogs and cats, despite their disparate origins. These results suggest that placentation depends on various retrovirus-derived genes that could have replaced endogenous predecessors during evolution.
endogenous retrovirus; RNA-seq; syncytin; envelope; cow
Syncytins are envelope genes of retroviral origin that have been co-opted for a role in placentation. They promote cell–cell fusion and are involved in the formation of a syncytium layer—the syncytiotrophoblast—at the materno-fetal interface. They were captured independently in eutherian mammals, and knockout mice demonstrated that they are absolutely required for placenta formation and embryo survival. Here we provide evidence that these “necessary” genes acquired “by chance” have a definite lifetime with diverse fates depending on the animal lineage, being both gained and lost in the course of evolution. Analysis of a retroviral envelope gene, the envV gene, present in primate genomes and belonging to the endogenous retrovirus type V (ERV-V) provirus, shows that this captured gene, which entered the primate lineage >45 million years ago, behaves as a syncytin in Old World monkeys, but lost its canonical fusogenic activity in other primate lineages, including humans. In the Old World monkeys, we show—by in situ analyses and ex vivo assays—that envV is both specifically expressed at the level of the placental syncytiotrophoblast and fusogenic, and that it further displays signs of purifying selection based on analysis of non-synonymous to synonymous substitution rates. We further show that purifying selection still operates in the primate lineages where the gene is no longer fusogenic, indicating that degeneracy of this ancestral syncytin is a slow, lineage-dependent, and multi-step process, in which the fusogenic activity would be the first canonical property of this retroviral envelope gene to be lost.
Syncytins are “new” genes encoding the envelope protein of captured endogenous retroviral elements. Their unambiguous status of “cellular gene” was recently demonstrated by knocking them out in genetically modified mice, showing their absolute requirement for placenta formation and embryo survival, via formation by cell–cell fusion of the feto-maternal syncytium interface. These genes are remarkable, as they are “necessary” for a basic function in placental mammals and yet they were acquired “by chance” on multiple occasions and independently in diverse mammalian species. We proposed that syncytins have been pivotal for the emergence of animals with a placenta from those laying eggs via the capture of a founding retroviral env gene, then subsequently replaced in the diverse mammalian lineages upon successive and independent germline infections by new retroviruses and co-optation of their env gene, each new gene providing its host with a positive selective advantage. This hypothesis would account for the diversity of the captured syncytins that can be currently found, concomitant with the diversity of placental architectures. A consequence of this paradigm is that evidence for “decaying syncytins” in eutherian mammals should exist, and this is precisely what we sought—and found—in this study.
A recent in silico search for coding sequences of retroviral origin present in the human genome has unraveled two new envelope genes that add to the 16 genes previously identified. A systematic search among the latter for a fusogenic activity had led to the identification of two bona fide genes, named syncytin-1 and syncytin-2, most probably co-opted by primate genomes for a placental function related to the formation of the syncytiotrophoblast by cell-cell fusion. Here, we show that one of the newly identified envelope gene, named envP(b), is fusogenic in an ex vivo assay, but that its expression – as quantified by real-time RT-PCR on a large panel of human tissues – is ubiquitous, albeit with a rather low value in most tissues. Conversely, the second envelope gene, named envV, discloses a placenta-specific expression, but is not fusogenic in any of the cells tested. Altogether, these results suggest that at least one of these env genes may play a role in placentation, but most probably through a process different from that of the two previously identified syncytins.
While common in viral infections and neoplasia, spontaneous cell-cell fusion, or syncytialization, is quite restricted in healthy tissues. Such fusion is essential to human placental development, where interactions between trophoblast-specific human endogenous retroviral (HERV) envelope proteins, called syncytins, and their widely-distributed cell surface receptors are centrally involved. We have identified the first host cell-encoded protein that inhibits cell fusion in mammals. Like the syncytins, this protein, called suppressyn, is HERV-derived, placenta-specific and well-conserved over simian evolution. In vitro, suppressyn binds to the syn1 receptor and inhibits syn1-, but not syn2-mediated trophoblast syncytialization. Suppressyn knock-down promotes cell-cell fusion in trophoblast cells and cell-associated and secreted suppressyn binds to the syn1 receptor, ASCT2. Identification of the first host cell-encoded inhibitor of mammalian cell fusion may encourage improved understanding of cell fusion mechanisms, of placental morphogenesis and of diseases resulting from abnormal cell fusion.
The HERV-W family contains hundreds of loci diversely expressed in several physiological and pathological contexts. A unique locus termed ERVWE1 encodes an envelope glycoprotein (syncytin) involved in hominoid placental physiology. Here we show that syncytin expression is regulated by a bipartite element consisting of a cyclic AMP (cAMP)-inducible long terminal repeat (LTR) retroviral promoter adjacent to a cellular enhancer conferring a high level of expression and placental tropism. Deletion mutant analysis showed that the ERVWE1 5′ LTR contains binding sites essential for basal placental activity in the region from positions +1 to +125. The region from positions +125 to +310 represents a cAMP-responsive core HERV-W promoter active in all cell types. Site-directed mutagenesis analysis highlighted the complexity of U3 regulation. ERVWE1 placenta-specific positive (e.g., T240) and negative (e.g., G71) regulatory sites were identified, as were essential sites required for basic activity (e.g., A247). The flanking sequences of the ERVWE1 provirus contain several putative regulatory elements. The upstream HERV-H and HERV-P LTRs were found to be inactive. Conversely, the 436-bp region located between the HERV-P LTR and ERVWE1 was shown to be an upstream regulatory element (URE) which is significantly active in placenta cells. This URE acts as a tissue-specific enhancer. Genetic and functional analyses of hominoid UREs revealed large differences between UREs of members of the Hominidae and the Hylobatidae. These data allowed the identification of a positive regulatory region from positions −436 to −128, a mammalian apparent LTR retrotransposon negative regulatory region from positions −128 to −67, and a trophoblast-specific enhancer (TSE) from positions −67 to −35. Putative AP-2, Sp-1, and GCMa binding sites are essential constituents of the 33-bp TSE.
In the fight against cancer, new and more specific targets are needed. Here, we offer an example of a potential target that has not been widely studied, namely the syncytin protein. Syncytin is expressed mainly in the human placenta and is implicated in placental syncytiotrophoblast cell fusion. Not much is known about the role of syncytin in cancer, but the existing data call for more intense research. Its retroviral origin and particular tissue distribution make syncytin an interesting potential target in cancer therapy.
Syncytin-1 and envPb1 are two conserved envelope genes in the human genome encoded by single loci from the HERV-W and -Pb families, respectively. To characterize the role of these envelope proteins in cell–cell fusion, we have developed lentiviral vectors that express short hairpin RNAs for stable knockdown of syncytin-1 and envPb1. Analysis of heterotypic fusion activity between trophoblast-derived choriocarcinoma BeWo cells, in which syncytin-1 and envPb1 are specifically silenced, and endothelial cells demonstrated that both syncytin-1 and envPb1 are important to fusion. The ability to fuse cells makes syncytin-1 and envPb1 attractive candidate molecules in therapy against cancer. Our available vectors may help eventually to decipher roles for these genes in human health and/or disease.
Cell-cell fusion and cell invasion are essential for placental development. Human cytotrophoblasts in the chorionic villi may undergo cell-cell fusion to form syncytiotrophoblasts to facilitate nutrient-gas exchange or differentiate into extravillous trophoblasts (EVTs) to facilitate maternal-fetal circulation. The placental transcription factor glial cells missing 1 (GCM1) regulates syncytin-1 and -2 expression to mediate trophoblast fusion. Interestingly, GCM1 and syncytin-1 are also expressed in EVTs with unknown physiological functions. In this study, we performed chromatin immunoprecipitation-on-chip (ChIP-chip) analysis and identified the gene for high-temperature requirement protein A4 (HtrA4) as a GCM1 target gene, which encodes a serine protease facilitating cleavage of fibronectin and invasion of placental cells. Importantly, HtrA4 is immunolocalized in EVTs at the maternal-fetal interface, and its expression is decreased by hypoxia and in preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication associated with placental hypoxia and shallow trophoblast invasion. We further demonstrate that HtrA4 interacts with syncytin-1 and suppresses cell-cell fusion. Therefore, HtrA4 may be crucial for EVT differentiation by playing a dual role in prevention of cell-cell fusion of EVTs and promotion of their invasion into the uterus. Our study reveals a novel function of GCM1 and HtrA4 in regulation of trophoblast invasion and that abnormal HrtA4 expression may contribute to shallow trophoblast invasion in preeclampsia.
Syncytin-1 and -2, human fusogenic glycoproteins encoded by the env genes of the endogenous retroviral loci ERVWE1 and ERVFRDE1, respectively, contribute to the differentiation of multinucleated syncytiotrophoblast in chorionic villi. In non-trophoblastic cells, however, the expression of syncytins has to be suppressed to avoid potential pathogenic effects. We studied the epigenetic suppression of ERVWE1 and ERVFRDE1 5′-long terminal repeats by DNA methylation and chromatin modifications. Immunoprecipitation of the provirus-associated chromatin revealed the H3K9 trimethylation at transcriptionally inactivated syncytins in HeLa cells. qRT-PCR analysis of non-spliced ERVWE1 and ERVFRDE1 mRNAs and respective env mRNAs detected efficient splicing of endogenously expressed RNAs in trophoblastic but not in non-placental cells. Pointing to the pathogenic potential of aberrantly expressed syncytin-1, we have found deregulation of transcription and splicing of the ERVWE1 in biopsies of testicular seminomas. Finally, ectopic expression experiments suggest the importance of proper chromatin context for the ERVWE1 splicing. Our results thus demonstrate that cell-specific retroviral splicing represents an additional epigenetic level controling the expression of endogenous retroviruses.
Syncytin is a fusogenic protein involved in the formation of the placental syncytiotrophoblast layer. This protein is encoded by the envelope gene of the ERVWE1 proviral locus belonging to the human endogenous retrovirus W (HERV-W) family. The HERV-W infectious ancestor entered the primate lineage 25 to 40 million years ago. Although the syncytin fusion property has been clearly demonstrated, little is known about this cellular protein maturation process with respect to classical infectious retrovirus envelope proteins. Here we show that the cellular syncytin protein is synthesized as a glycosylated gPr73 precursor cleaved into two mature proteins, a gp50 surface subunit (SU) and a gp24 transmembrane subunit (TM). These SU and TM subunits are found associated as homotrimers. The intracytoplasmic tail is critical to the fusogenic phenotype, although its cleavage requirements seem to have diverged from those of classical retroviral maturation.
Human trophoblast expresses two fusogenic retroviral envelope proteins, the widely studied syncytin 1, encoded by HERV-W and the recently characterized syncytin 2 encoded by HERV-FRD. Here we studied syncytin 2 in normal and Trisomy 21-affected placenta associated with abnormal trophoblast differentiation. Syncytin 2 immunolocalization was restricted throughout normal pregnancy to some villous cytotrophoblastic cells (CT). During the second trimester of pregnancy, syncytin 2 was immunolocalized in some cuboidal CT in T21 placentas, whereas in normal placentas it was observed in flat CT, extending into their cytoplasmic processes. In vitro, CT isolated from normal placenta fuse and differentiate into syncytiotrophoblast. At the same time, syncytin 2 transcript levels decreased significantly with syncytiotrophoblast formation. In contrast, CT isolated from T21-affected placentas fused and differentiated poorly and no variation in syncytin 2 transcript levels was observed. Syncytin 2 expression illustrates the abnormal trophoblast differentiation observed in placenta of fetal T21-affected pregnancies.
We recently demonstrated that the product of the HERV-W env gene, a retroviral envelope protein also dubbed syncytin, is a highly fusogenic membrane glycoprotein inducing the formation of syncytia on interaction with the type D mammalian retrovirus receptor. In addition, the detection of HERV-W Env protein (Env-W) expression in placental tissue sections led us to propose a role for this fusogenic glycoprotein in placenta formation. To evaluate this hypothesis, we analyzed the involvement of Env-W in the differentiation of primary cultures of human villous cytotrophoblasts that spontaneously differentiate by cell fusion into syncytiotrophoblasts in vitro. First, we observed that HERV-W env mRNA and glycoprotein expression are colinear with primary cytotrophoblast differentiation and with expression of human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a marker of syncytiotrophoblast formation. Second, we observed that in vitro stimulation of trophoblast cell fusion and differentiation by cyclic AMP is also associated with a concomitant increase in HERV-W env and hCG mRNA and protein expression. Finally, by using specific antisense oligonucleotides, we demonstrated that inhibition of Env-W protein expression leads to a decrease of trophoblast fusion and differentiation, with the secretion of hCG in culture medium of antisense oligonucleotide-treated cells being decreased by fivefold. Taken together, these results strongly support a direct role for Env-W in human trophoblast cell fusion and differentiation.
The cellular HERV-W envelope/syncytin-1 protein, encoded by the envelope gene of the ERVWE1 proviral locus is a fusogenic glycoprotein probably involved in the formation of the placental syncytiotrophoblast layer. Syncytin-1-induced in vitro cell-cell fusion is dependent on the interaction with hASCT2. As no receptor binding domain has been clearly defined in the SU of neither the HERV-W Env nor the retroviruses of the same interference group, we designed an in vitro binding assay to evaluate the interaction of the HERV-W envelope with the hASCT2 receptor. Using truncated HERV-W SU subunits, a region consisting of the N-terminal 124 amino acids of the mature SU glycoprotein was determined as the minimal receptor-binding domain. This domain contains several sub-domains which are poorly conserved among retroviruses of this interference group but a region of 18 residus containing the SDGGGX2DX2R conserved motif was proved to be essential for syncytin-1-hASCT2 interaction.
Terminal differentiation of villous cytotrophoblasts (CT) ends in formation of the multinucleated syncytiotrophoblast representing the fetal-maternal interface. Aberrations during this cell-fusion process are associated with Intrauterine Growth Restriction (IUGR), Preeclampsia (PE) and High Elevated Liver and Low Platelets (HELLP) Syndrome. Syncytin-1, the envelope gene of the human Endogenous Retrovirus ERVW-1, is one of the most important genes involved in cell-fusion and showed decreased gene expression during these pathological pregnancies. The aim of this study was to determine the methylation pattern of the entire promoter of ERVW-1 and to correlate these findings with the expression profile of Syncytin-1 in the placental syndromes. 14 isolated villous cytotrophoblasts from control (n = 3), IUGR (n = 3), PE (n = 3), PE/IUGR (n = 3) and HELLP/IUGR (n = 2) placentae were used to determine the mean methylation level (ML) for the ERVW-1 promoter region. ML rose significantly from 29% in control CTs to 49% in IUGR, 53% in PE, 47% in PE/IUGR and 64% in HELLP/IUGR indicating an epigenetic down-regulation of Syncytin-1 by promoter hypermethylation. DNA demethylation of the trophoblast like cell lines BeWo, JEG-3 and JAR with 5-AZA-2′desoxycytidine (AZA) showed an increased Syncytin-1 expression and fusion ability in all cell lines. Promoter activity of the 5′LTR could be inhibited by hypermethylation 42-fold using a luciferase based reporter-gene assay. Finally overexpression of the methyltransferases DNMT3a and LSH could be responsible for a decreased Syncytin-1 expression by promoter hypermethylation of ERVW-1. Our study linked decreased Syncytin-1 expression to an epigenetic hypermethylation of the entire promoter of ERVW-1. Based on our findings we are predicting a broad aberrant epigenetic DNA-methylation pattern in pathological placentae affecting placentogenesis, but also the development of the fetus and the mother during pregnancy.
Cell fusions are important to fertilization, placentation, development of skeletal muscle and bone, calcium homeostasis and the immune defense system. Additionally, cell fusions participate in tissue repair and may be important to cancer development and progression. A large number of factors appear to regulate cell fusions, including receptors and ligands, membrane domain organizing proteins, proteases, signaling molecules and fusogenic proteins forming alpha-helical bundles that bring membranes close together. The syncytin family of proteins represent true fusogens and the founding member, syncytin-1, has been documented to be involved in fusions between placental trophoblasts, between cancer cells and between cancer cells and host cells. We review the literature with emphasis on the syncytin family and propose that syncytins may represent universal fusogens in primates and rodents, which work together with a number of other proteins to regulate the cell fusion machinery.
Cell fusion; Syncytin; Cancer; Placenta; Env-W
Fusogenic endogenous retroviral syncytin plays an important role in the formation of syncytiotrophoblasts in human placenta. Apart from its expression in placenta, brain and testis, syncytin has also been found in many cancers. Although syncytin has been proposed to serve as a positive prognostic marker in some cancers, the underlying mechanism is unclear. The aim of this study is to evaluate the effects of syncytin expression on the invasive phenotype of melanoma cells.
The eukaryotic expression plasmid for syncytin-EGFP was constructed and transfected into B16F10 melanoma cells. The effect of syncytin on the invasion potential of tumor cells was evaluated in B16F10 subline cells that stably expressed syncytin-EGFP fusion protein or EGFP alone.
The B16F10 sublines that stably expressed syncytin-EGFP or EGFP alone were established respectively and confirmed by immunofluorescent and immunoblotting assay. Syncytin expression in B16F10 cells was associated with decreased cell proliferation, migration and invasion. Multinucleated giant cells that contained as many as five nuclei were induced in syncytin-expressing cells. In addition, syncytin expression did not alter the sensitivity of B16F10 cells to trichosanthin, a toxin that damages syncytiotrophoblasts more efficiently than other tissues.
These results suggest that syncytin expression in some cancers may confine their invasion potential and thus serve as a positive prognostic factor.
Syncytin; melanoma; invasiveness; cell fusion; multinucleated cells
Human GCMa is a zinc-containing transcription factor primarily expressed in placenta. GCMa regulates expression of syncytin gene, which encodes for a placenta-specific membrane protein that mediates trophoblastic fusion and the formation of syncytiotrophoblast layer required for efficient fetal-maternal exchange of nutrients and oxygen. The adenylate cyclase activator, forskolin, stimulates syncytin gene expression and cell fusion in cultured placental cells. Here we present evidence that cyclic AMP (cAMP) signaling pathway activates the syncytin gene expression by regulating GCMa activity. We found that forskolin and protein kinase A (PKA) enhances GCMa-mediated transcriptional activation. Furthermore, PKA treatment stimulates the association of GCMa with CBP and increases GCMa acetylation. CBP primarily acetylates GCMa at lysine367, lysine406, and lysine409 in the transactivation domain (TAD). We found that acetylation of these residues is required to protect GCMa from ubiquitination and increases the TAD stability with a concomitant increase in transcriptional activity, supporting the importance of acetylation in PKA-dependent GCMa activation. Our results reveal a novel regulation of GCMa activity by cAMP-dependent protein acetylation and provide a molecular mechanism by which cAMP signaling regulates trophoblastic fusion.
Mutations in STOX1 were proposed to be causal for predisposing to preeclampsia, a hypertensive disorder originating from placental defects, affecting up to 10% of human pregnancies. However, after the first study published in 2005 three other groups have dismissed the polymorphism described in the first paper as a causal mutation.
Methodology and Principal Findings
In the present study, we have produced a choriocarcinoma cell line overexpressing STOX1. This overexpression results in transcriptional modification of 12.5% of the genes, some of them being direct targets as shown by chromatin immunoprecipitation. STOX1 overexpression correlates strongly and specifically with transcriptomic alterations in preeclamptic placentas (r = 0.30, p = 9.10−7). Numerous known key modulators of preeclampsia (such as Endoglin, Syncytin, human chorionic gonadotrophin -hCG-, and Glial Cell Missing Homolog -GCM1-) were modified in these transformed choriocarcinoma cells.
Our results contribute to reconcile contradictory data concerning the involvement of STOX1 in preeclampsia. In addition, they strongly suggest that anomalies in STOX1 expression are associated with the onset of preeclampsia, thus indicating that this gene should be the target of future studies. Our cellular model could constitute an invaluable resource for studying specific aspects of this human disease.
The placental syncytiotrophoblast is the major source of maternal plasma corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) in the second half of pregnancy. Placental CRH exerts multiple functions in the maternal organism: It induces the adrenal secretion of cortisol via the stimulation of adrenocorticotropic hormone, regulates the timing of birth via its actions in the myometrium and inhibits the invasion of extravillous trophoblast cells in vitro. However, the auto- and paracrine actions of CRH on the syncytiotrophoblast itself are unknown. Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) is accompanied by an increase in placental CRH, which could be of pathophysiological relevance for the dysregulation in syncytialisation seen in IUGR placentas.
We aimed to determine the effect of CRH on isolated primary trophoblastic cells in vitro. After CRH stimulation the trophoblast syncytialisation rate was monitored via syncytin-1 gene expression and beta-hCG (beta-human chorionic gonadotropine) ELISA in culture supernatant. The expression of the IUGR marker genes leptin and 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase 2 (11beta-HSD2) was measured continuously over a period of 72 h. We hypothesized that CRH might attenuate syncytialisation, induce leptin, and reduce 11beta-HSD2 expression in primary villous trophoblasts, which are known features of IUGR.
CRH did not influence the differentiation of isolated trophoblasts into functional syncytium as determined by beta-hCG secretion, albeit inducing syncytin-1 expression. Following syncytialisation, CRH treatment significantly increased leptin and 11beta-HSD2 expression, as well as leptin secretion into culture supernatant after 48 h.
The relevance of CRH for placental physiology is underlined by the present in vitro study. The induction of leptin and 11beta-HSD2 in the syncytiotrophoblast by CRH might promote fetal nutrient supply and placental corticosteroid metabolism in the phase before labour induction.
CRH; leptin; 11beta-HSD2; Syncytin-1; Trophoblast; Syncytiotrophoblast; Placenta
The human HERV-W multicopy family includes a unique proviral locus, termed ERVWE1, whose full-length envelope ORF was preserved through evolution by the action of a selective pressure. The encoded Env protein (Syncytin) is involved in hominoid placental physiology.
In order to infer the natural history of this domestication process, a comparative genomic analysis of the human 7q21.2 syntenic regions in eutherians was performed. In primates, this region was progressively colonized by LTR-elements, leading to two different evolutionary pathways in Cercopithecidae and Hominidae, a genetic drift versus a domestication, respectively.
The preservation in Hominoids of a genomic structure consisting in the juxtaposition of a retrotransposon-derived MaLR LTR and the ERVWE1 provirus suggests a functional link between both elements.
The glycoprotein, Syncytin-1, is encoded by a human endogenous retrovirus (HERV)-W env gene and is capable of inducing neuroinflammation. The specific allele(s) responsible for Syncytin-1 expression in the brain is uncertain. Herein, HERV-W env diversity together with Syncytin-1 abundance and host immune gene profiles were examined in the nervous system using a multiplatform approach.
HERV-W env sequences were encoded by multiple chromosomal encoding loci in primary human neurons compared with less chromosomal diversity in astrocytes and microglia (p<0.05). HERV-W env RNA sequences cloned from brains of patients with systemic or neurologic diseases were principally derived from chromosomal locus 7q21.2. Within the same specimens, HERV-W env transcript levels were correlated with the expression of multiple proinflammatory genes (p<0.05). Deep sequencing of brain transcriptomes disclosed the env transcripts to be the most abundant HERV-W transcripts, showing greater expression in fetal compared with healthy adult brain specimens. Syncytin-1's expression in healthy brain specimens was derived from multiple encoding loci and linked to distinct immune and developmental gene profiles.
Syncytin-1 expression in the brain during disease was associated with neuroinflammation and was principally encoded by a full length provirus. The present studies also highlighted the diversity in HERV gene expression within the brain and reinforce the potential contributions of HERV expression to neuroinflammatory diseases.
Genome-wide screening of sequence databases for human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) has led to the identification of 18 coding env genes, among which two—the syncytin genes—encode fusogenic ENV proteins possibly involved in placenta physiology. Here we show that a third ENV, originating from the most “recent” HERV-K(HML2) family, is functional. Immunofluorescence analysis of env-transduced cells demonstrates expression of the protein at the cell surface, and we show that the protein confers infectivity to simian immunodeficiency virus pseudotypes. Western blot analysis of the pseudotyped virions further discloses the expected specific cleavage of the ENV precursor protein. This functional ENV could play a role in the amplification—via infection of the germ line—of the HERV-K genomic copies, all the more as coding HERV-K gag and pol genes can similarly be found in the human genome, which could therefore generate infectious virions of a fully endogenous origin.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) has undergone a significant increase in incidence in the industrialised nations over the last 130 years. Changing environmental factors, possibly infections or a lack of or altered timing of them, determine the prevalence of the disease. Although a plethora of aetiological factors, clearly evident in a group of children with MS, appear relevant, there may nevertheless be a single factor essential for the aetiopathogenesis and clinical manifestation of MS.
Description and discussion
This hitherto unknown factor is postulated to be a ‘melanoma-like neuromelanin’ (MLN) dependent on the activation of a gene for syncytin-1. An involvement of MLN could explain the diverse findings in the epidemiology, immunology and pathology of MS, requiring a consideration of a complex infectious background, the human leucocyte antigens, as well as cosmic radiation causing geomagnetic disturbances, vitamin D deficiency, smoking, and lower levels of uric acid.
In principle, the MLN-based concept is a unifying one, capable of explaining a number of characteristics of the disease. To date, MLN has not been addressed in studies on MS and future work will need to be done on human patients, as there is little or no neuromelanin (the precursor of MLN) in the animals used as experimental models in the study of MS.
Multiple sclerosis; Risk factors; Latency; Melanoma; Neuro-melanin; Epstein-Barr virus; Human endogenous retrovirus; Vitamin D; Geomagnetic disturbances
ERV-3 is an evolutionarily conserved single-copy human endogenous retrovirus with a coding envelope gene potentially involved in important placental functions. We have investigated the sequence variability of this gene among 150 unrelated Caucasian individuals and found eight polymorphic sites. One of them corresponds to the introduction of a stop codon resulting in the production of a severely truncated ERV-3 envelope protein lacking both the fusion peptide and the immunosuppressive domain of the protein. The stop codon is observed in a homozygous state in approximately 1% of Caucasian individuals without evidence for counterselection, thus precluding the involvement of any essential function of the gene in placental implantation and development. This natural knockout provides a mean to investigate other potential roles for this otherwise highly conserved gene.