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1.  Capture of syncytin-Mar1, a Fusogenic Endogenous Retroviral Envelope Gene Involved in Placentation in the Rodentia Squirrel-Related Clade 
Journal of Virology  2014;88(14):7915-7928.
Syncytin genes are fusogenic envelope protein (env) genes of retroviral origin that have been captured for a function in placentation. Within rodents, two such genes have previously been identified in the mouse-related clade, allowing a demonstration of their essential role via knockout mice. Here, we searched for similar genes in a second major clade of the Rodentia order, the squirrel-related clade, taking advantage of the complete sequencing of the ground squirrel Ictidomys tridecemlineatus genome. In silico search for env genes with full coding capacity identified several candidate genes with one displaying placenta-specific expression, as revealed by quantitative reverse transcription-PCR analysis of a large panel of tissues. This gene belongs to a degenerate endogenous retroviral element, with recognizable hallmarks of an integrated provirus. Cloning of the gene in an expression vector for ex vivo cell-cell fusion and pseudotype assays demonstrated fusogenicity on a large panel of mammalian cells. In situ hybridization on placenta sections showed specific expression in domains where trophoblast cells fuse into a syncytiotrophoblast at the fetomaternal interface, consistent with a role in syncytium formation. Finally, we show that the gene is conserved among the tribe Marmotini, thus dating its capture back to about at least 25 million years ago, with evidence for purifying selection and conservation of fusogenic activity. This gene that we named syncytin-Mar1 is distinct from all seven Syncytin genes identified to date in eutherian mammals and is likely to be a major effector of placentation in its related clade.
IMPORTANCE Syncytin genes are fusogenic envelope genes of retroviral origin, ancestrally captured for a function in placentation. Within rodents, two such genes had been previously identified in the mouse-related clade. Here, in the squirrel-related rodent clade, we identified the envelope gene of an endogenous retrovirus with all the features of a Syncytin: it is specifically expressed in the placenta of the woodchuck Marmota monax, at the level of cells fusing into a syncytium; it can trigger cell-cell and virus-cell fusion ex vivo; and it has been conserved for >25 million years of evolution, suggesting an essential role in its host physiology. Remarkably, syncytin-Mar1 is unrelated to all other Syncytin genes identified thus far in mammals (primates, muroids, carnivores, and ruminants). These results extend the range of retroviral envelope gene “domestication” in mammals and show that these events occurred independently, on multiple occasions during evolution to improve placental development in a process of convergent evolution.
PMCID: PMC4097791  PMID: 24789792
2.  Identification of an endogenous retroviral envelope gene with fusogenic activity and placenta-specific expression in the rabbit: a new "syncytin" in a third order of mammals 
Retrovirology  2009;6:107.
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.
PMCID: PMC2789053  PMID: 19943933
3.  Differential Evolutionary Fate of an Ancestral Primate Endogenous Retrovirus Envelope Gene, the EnvV Syncytin, Captured for a Function in Placentation 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(3):e1003400.
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.
Author Summary
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.
PMCID: PMC3610889  PMID: 23555306
4.  Paleovirology of ‘syncytins’, retroviral env genes exapted for a role in placentation 
The development of the emerging field of ‘paleovirology’ allows biologists to reconstruct the evolutionary history of fossil endogenous retroviral sequences integrated within the genome of living organisms and has led to the retrieval of conserved, ancient retroviral genes ‘exapted’ by ancestral hosts to fulfil essential physiological roles, syncytin genes being undoubtedly among the most remarkable examples of such a phenomenon. Indeed, syncytins are ‘new’ genes encoding proteins derived from the envelope protein of endogenous retroviral elements that have been captured and domesticated on multiple occasions and independently in diverse mammalian species, through a process of convergent evolution. Knockout of syncytin genes in mice provided evidence for their absolute requirement for placenta development and embryo survival, via formation by cell–cell fusion of syncytial cell layers at the fetal–maternal interface. These genes of exogenous origin, acquired ‘by chance’ and yet still ‘necessary’ to carry out a basic function in placental mammals, may have been pivotal in the emergence of mammalian ancestors with a placenta from egg-laying animals via the capture of a founding retroviral env gene, subsequently replaced in the diverse mammalian lineages by new env-derived syncytin genes, each providing its host with a positive selective advantage.
PMCID: PMC3758191  PMID: 23938756
endogenous retrovirus; envelope protein; syncytin; placenta; cell–cell fusion
5.  Positive Selection of Iris, a Retroviral Envelope–Derived Host Gene in Drosophila melanogaster 
PLoS Genetics  2005;1(4):e44.
Eukaryotic genomes can usurp enzymatic functions encoded by mobile elements for their own use. A particularly interesting kind of acquisition involves the domestication of retroviral envelope genes, which confer infectious membrane-fusion ability to retroviruses. So far, these examples have been limited to vertebrate genomes, including primates where the domesticated envelope is under purifying selection to assist placental function. Here, we show that in Drosophila genomes, a previously unannotated gene (CG4715, renamed Iris) was domesticated from a novel, active Kanga lineage of insect retroviruses at least 25 million years ago, and has since been maintained as a host gene that is expressed in all adult tissues. Iris and the envelope genes from Kanga retroviruses are homologous to those found in insect baculoviruses and gypsy and roo insect retroviruses. Two separate envelope domestications from the Kanga and roo retroviruses have taken place, in fruit fly and mosquito genomes, respectively. Whereas retroviral envelopes are proteolytically cleaved into the ligand-interaction and membrane-fusion domains, Iris appears to lack this cleavage site. In the takahashii/suzukii species groups of Drosophila, we find that Iris has tandemly duplicated to give rise to two genes (Iris-A and Iris-B). Iris-B has significantly diverged from the Iris-A lineage, primarily because of the “invention” of an intron de novo in what was previously exonic sequence. Unlike domesticated retroviral envelope genes in mammals, we find that Iris has been subject to strong positive selection between Drosophila species. The rapid, adaptive evolution of Iris is sufficient to unambiguously distinguish the phylogenies of three closely related sibling species of Drosophila (D. simulans, D. sechellia, and D. mauritiana), a discriminative power previously described only for a putative “speciation gene.” Iris represents the first instance of a retroviral envelope–derived host gene outside vertebrates. It is also the first example of a retroviral envelope gene that has been found to be subject to positive selection following its domestication. The unusual selective pressures acting on Iris suggest that it is an active participant in an ongoing genetic conflict. We propose a model in which Iris has “switched sides,” having been recruited by host genomes to combat baculoviruses and retroviruses, which employ homologous envelope genes to mediate infection.
Mobile genetic elements have made homes within eukaryotic (host) genomes for hundreds of millions of years. These include retroviruses that integrate into host genomes as an essential step in their life cycle. While most such integration events are likely to be either deleterious or of little consequence to the host, on rare occasions host genomes can preserve and exploit capabilities of mobile elements for their own function. Especially intriguing are instances where host genomes have chosen to retain the envelope genes of retroviruses; the same envelope genes are responsible for conferring infectious ability to retroviruses. Primates and rodent genomes each have domesticated retroviral envelope genes (called “syncytin” genes) for important roles in placental function.
Now, Harmit Malik and colleagues show that a similar, ancient domestication event has taken place within the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. They identify a gene, Iris, which was acquired from an envelope gene of insect retroviruses, and has been maintained as a host gene for more than 25 million years. Unexpectedly, the authors find that Iris continues to evolve rapidly whereas previous studies have shown that mammalian syncytin genes do not. They suggest a model in which the Iris gene has “switched sides,” from its original role in causing infections to its current role in preventing them.
PMCID: PMC1262188  PMID: 16244705
6.  Dynamic Evolution of Endogenous Retrovirus-Derived Genes Expressed in Bovine Conceptuses during the Period of Placentation 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2013;5(2):296-306.
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.
PMCID: PMC3590765  PMID: 23335121
endogenous retrovirus; RNA-seq; syncytin; envelope; cow
7.  Functional characterization of two newly identified Human Endogenous Retrovirus coding envelope genes 
Retrovirology  2005;2:19.
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.
PMCID: PMC555746  PMID: 15766379
8.  Implication of Human Endogenous Retrovirus Envelope Proteins in Placental Functions 
Viruses  2014;6(11):4609-4627.
Human endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) represent 8% of the total human genome. Although the majority of these ancient proviral sequences have only retained non-coding long terminal repeats (LTRs), a number of “endogenized” retroviral genes encode functional proteins. Previous studies have underlined the implication of these ERV-derived proteins in the development and the function of the placenta. In this review, we summarize recent findings showing that two ERV genes, termed Syncytin-1 and Syncytin-2, which encode former envelope (Env) proteins, trigger fusion events between villous cytotrophoblasts and the peripheral multinucleated syncytiotrophoblast layer. Such fusion events maintain the stability of this latter cell structure, which plays an important role in fetal development by the active secretion of various soluble factors, gas exchange and regulation of fetomaternal immunotolerance. We also highlight new studies showing that these ERV proteins, in addition to their localization at the cell surface of cytotrophoblasts, are also incorporated on the surface of various extracellular microvesicles, including exosomes. Such exosome-associated proteins could be involved in the various functions attributed to these vesicles and could provide a form of tropism. Additionally, through their immunosuppressive domains, these ERV proteins could also contribute to fetomaternal immunotolerance in a local and more distal manner. These various aspects of the implication of Syncytin-1 and -2 in placental function are also addressed in the context of the placenta-related disorder, preeclampsia.
PMCID: PMC4246240  PMID: 25421890
human endogenous retrovirus; Syncytin-1 and -2; placenta; syncytiotrophoblast; immunotolerance; exosomes; pre-eclampsia
9.  Reduced Syncytin-1 Expression Levels in Placental Syndromes Correlates with Epigenetic Hypermethylation of the ERVW-1 Promoter Region 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(2):e56145.
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.
PMCID: PMC3573012  PMID: 23457515
10.  A novel human endogenous retroviral protein inhibits cell-cell fusion 
Scientific Reports  2013;3:1462.
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.
PMCID: PMC3598002  PMID: 23492904
11.  Fematrin-1 Is Involved in Fetomaternal Cell-to-Cell Fusion in Bovinae Placenta and Has Contributed to Diversity of Ruminant Placentation 
Journal of Virology  2013;87(19):10563-10572.
During placentation, mammals employ different strategies for nourishing and supporting fetuses. Members of the Bovidae family, consisting of cloven-hoofed ruminants, utilize multiple maternal attachment points on the placenta, known as cotyledons, and hybrid cells, named trinucleate cells or syncytial plaques, made up of a fusion of fetal trophoblasts and maternal endometrial cells to provide essential hormones and maintain long gestation periods. These hybrid cells are unique to the Bovidae, as fetomaternal borders are clearly separated by syncytiotrophoblasts or epithelial cells in the placenta of other mammals. Recently, it was reported that Syncytin-Rum1 was inserted into ruminant genomes, including cattle and sheep, and was possibly involved in fetomaternal cell-to-cell fusion in both species. However, Syncytin-Rum1 alone is insufficient to explain the morphological diversity of the fetomaternal hybrids between Bovinae and Caprinae (i.e., trinucleate cells in Bovinae and syncytial plaques in Caprinae). Here we report that the bovine endogenous retrovirus K1 (BERV-K1) envelope, which we term Fematrin-1, was specifically expressed in binucleated trophoblasts throughout gestation in cattle and induced fusion with bovine endometrial cells in vitro at a significantly higher level than Syncytin-Rum1 under physiological conditions. Fematrin-1 was found to be integrated into intron 18 of FAT tumor suppressor homolog 2 (FAT2) about 18.3 to 25.4 million years ago and has been subject to purifying selection through the evolution of Bovinae. Phylogenetically, Fematrin-1 is distinct from Syncytin genes found in other mammalian species that form syncytiotrophoblasts. Our results suggest that the newly acquired endogenous retroelement has contributed to generating placentation diversity through ruminant evolution.
PMCID: PMC3807419  PMID: 23864631
12.  Synthesis, Assembly, and Processing of the Env ERVWE1/Syncytin Human Endogenous Retroviral Envelope 
Journal of Virology  2005;79(9):5585-5593.
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.
PMCID: PMC1082723  PMID: 15827173
13.  A Retroviral Promoter and a Cellular Enhancer Define a Bipartite Element Which Controls env ERVWE1 Placental Expression 
Journal of Virology  2004;78(22):12157-12168.
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.
PMCID: PMC525085  PMID: 15507602
14.  High-Temperature Requirement Protein A4 (HtrA4) Suppresses the Fusogenic Activity of Syncytin-1 and Promotes Trophoblast Invasion 
Molecular and Cellular Biology  2012;32(18):3707-3717.
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.
PMCID: PMC3430202  PMID: 22778138
15.  Identification of the hASCT2-binding domain of the Env ERVWE1/syncytin-1 fusogenic glycoprotein 
Retrovirology  2006;3:41.
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.
PMCID: PMC1524976  PMID: 16820059
16.  Epigenetic regulation of transcription and splicing of syncytins, fusogenic glycoproteins of retroviral origin 
Nucleic Acids Research  2011;39(20):8728-8739.
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.
PMCID: PMC3203578  PMID: 21771862
17.  Cell–cell fusion as a potential target in cancer therapy 
ecancermedicalscience  2009;3:145.
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.
PMCID: PMC3224012  PMID: 22276010
18.  Silencing of endogenous envelope genes in human choriocarcinoma cells shows that envPb1 is involved in heterotypic cell fusions 
The Journal of General Virology  2012;93(Pt 8):1696-1699.
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.
PMCID: PMC3541762  PMID: 22573740
19.  Human endogenous retrovirus-FRD envelope protein (syncytin 2) expression in normal and trisomy 21-affected placenta 
Retrovirology  2008;5:6.
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.
PMCID: PMC2245979  PMID: 18215254
20.  Role of the Vasohibin Family in the Regulation of Fetoplacental Vascularization and Syncytiotrophoblast Formation 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(9):e104728.
Vasohibin-1 (VASH1) and vasohibin-2 (VASH2), the 2 members of the vasohibin family, have been identified as novel regulators of angiogenesis. VASH1 ceases angiogenesis, whereas VASH2 stimulates sprouting. Here we characterized their functional role in the placenta. Immunohistochemical analysis of human placental tissue clarified their distinctive localization; VASH1 in endothelial cells and VASH2 in trophoblasts. We then used a mouse model to explore their function. Wild-type, Vash1(−/−), and Vash2(−/−) mice on a C57BL6 background were used in their first pregnancy. As expected, the fetal vascular area was increased in the Vash1(−/−) mice, whereas it was decreased in the Vash2(−/−) mice relative to wild-type. In addition, we noticed that the Vash2(−/−) mice at 18.5dpc displayed thinner villi of the labyrinth and larger maternal lacunae. Careful observation by an electron microscopy revealed that the syncytiotrophoblast formation was defective in the Vash2(−/−) mice. To test the possible involvement of VASH2 in the syncytiotrophoblast formation, we examined the fusion of BeWo cells, a human trophoblastoid choriocarcinoma cell line. The forskolin treatment induced the fusion of BeWo cells, and the knockdown of VASH2 expression significantly inhibited this cell fusion. Conversely, the overexpression of VASH2 by the infection with adenovirus vector encoding human VASH2 gene significantly increased the fusion of BeWo cells. Glial cell missing-1 and endogenous retrovirus envelope glycoprotein Syncytin 1 and Syncytin 2 are known to be involved in the fusion of trophoblasts. However, VASH2 did not alter their expression in BeWo cells. These results indicate that VASH1 and VASH2 showed distinctive localization and opposing function on the fetoplacental vascularization. Moreover, our study shows for the first time that VASH2 expressed in trophoblasts is involved in the regulation of cell fusion for syncytiotrophoblast formation.
PMCID: PMC4153575  PMID: 25184477
21.  Genetic Aspects of Preeclampsia and the HELLP Syndrome 
Journal of Pregnancy  2014;2014:910751.
Both preeclampsia and the HELLP syndrome have their origin in the placenta. The aim of this study is to review genetic factors involved in development of preeclampsia and the HELLP syndrome using literature search in PubMed. A familial cohort links chromosomes 2q, 5q, and 13q to preeclampsia. The chromosome 12q is coupled with the HELLP syndrome. The STOX1 gene, the ERAP1 and 2 genes, the syncytin envelope gene, and the −670 Fas receptor polymorphisms are involved in the development of preeclampsia. The ACVR2A gene on chromosome 2q22 is also implicated. The toll-like receptor-4 (TLR-4) and factor V Leiden mutation participate both in development of preeclampsia and the HELLP syndrome. Carriers of the TT and the CC genotype of the MTHFR C677T polymorphism seem to have an increased risk of the HELLP syndrome. The placental levels of VEGF mRNA are reduced both in women with preeclampsia and in women with the HELLP syndrome. The BclI polymorphism is engaged in development of the HELLP syndrome but not in development of severe preeclampsia. The ACE I/D polymorphism affects uteroplacental and umbilical artery blood flows in women with preeclampsia. In women with preeclampsia and the HELLP syndrome several genes in the placenta are deregulated. Preeclampsia and the HELLP syndrome are multiplex genetic diseases.
PMCID: PMC4060423  PMID: 24991435
22.  Reactivation of codogenic endogenous retroviral (ERV) envelope genes in human endometrial carcinoma and prestages: Emergence of new molecular targets 
Oncotarget  2012;3(10):1204-1219.
Endometrial carcinoma (EnCa) is the most common invasive gynaecologic carcinoma. Over 85% of EnCa are classified as endometrioid, expressing steroid hormone receptors and mostly involving pathological prestages. Human endogenous retroviruses (ERV) are chromosomally integrated genes, account for about 8% of the human genome and are implicated in the etiology of carcinomas. The majority of ERV envelope (env) coding genes are either not present or not consistently represented between common gene expression microarrays. The aim of this study was to analyse the absolute gene expression of all known 21 ERV env genes including 19 codogenic and two env genes with premature stop codons in EnCa, endometrium as well as in hyperplasia and polyps. For EnCa seven env genes had high expression with >200 mol/ng cDNA (e.g. envH1-3, Syncytin-1, envT), two middle >50 mol/ng cDNA (envFc2, erv-3) and 12 low <50 mol/ng cDNA (e.g. Syncytin-2, envV2). Regarding tumor parameters, Syncytin-1 and Syncytin-2 were significantly over-expressed in advanced stage pT2 compared to pT1b. In less differentiated EnCa Syncytin-1, erv-3, envT and envFc2 were significantly over-expressed. Syncytin-1, Syncytin-2 and erv-3 were specific to glandular epithelial cells of polyps, hyperplasia and EnCa using immunohistochemistry. An analysis of 10 patient-matched EnCa with endometrium revealed that the ERV-W 5' long terminal repeat regulating Syncytin-1 was hypomethylated, including the ERE and CRE overlapping MeCP2 sites. Functional analyses showed that 10 env genes were regulated by methylation in EnCa using the RL95-2 cell line. In conclusion, over-expressed env genes could serve as indicators for pathological pre-stages and EnCa.
PMCID: PMC3717959  PMID: 23085571
Endometrial carcinoma; hyperplasia; polyp; ERV; Syncytin
23.  Direct Involvement of HERV-W Env Glycoprotein in Human Trophoblast Cell Fusion and Differentiation 
Molecular and Cellular Biology  2003;23(10):3566-3574.
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.
PMCID: PMC164757  PMID: 12724415
24.  Human endogenous retroviral syncytin exerts inhibitory effect on invasive phenotype of B16F10 melanoma cells 
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.
PMCID: PMC3828447  PMID: 24255580
Syncytin; melanoma; invasiveness; cell fusion; multinucleated cells
25.  Cell fusions in mammals 
Histochemistry and Cell Biology  2008;129(5):551-561.
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.
PMCID: PMC2323033  PMID: 18351375
Cell fusion; Syncytin; Cancer; Placenta; Env-W

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