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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.  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
3.  Comparative full length genome sequence analysis of usutu virus isolates from Africa 
Virology Journal  2013;10:217.
Usutu virus (USUV), a flavivirus belonging to the Japanese encephalitis serocomplex, was identified in South Africa in 1959 and reported for the first time in Europe in 2001. To date, full length genome sequences have been available only for the reference strain from South Africa and a single isolate from each of Austria, Hungary, and Italy.
We sequenced four USUV isolates from Senegal and the Central African Republic (CAR) between 1974 and 2007 and compared the sequence data to USUV strains from Austria, Hungary, Italy, and South Africa using a Bayesian Markov chain Monte Carlo method. We further clarified the taxonomic status of a USUV strain isolated in CAR in 1969 and proposed earlier as a subtype of USUV due to an asymetric serological cross-reactivity with USUV reference strain.
A comparison of the four newly obtained USUV sequences with those from SouthAfrica_1959, Vienna_2001, Budapest_2005, and Italy_2009 revealed that they are all 96-99% and 99% similar at the nucleotide and amino acid levels, respectively. The phylogenetic relationships between these sequences indicated that a strain isolated in Senegal in 1993 is most closely related to the USUV strains detected in Europe. Analysis of a strain isolated from a human in CAR in 1981 (CAR_1981) revealed the presence of specific amino acid substitutions and a deletion in the 3′ noncoding region. This is the first fully sequenced human USUV isolate.
The putative USUV subtype, CAR_1969, was 81% and 94% identical at the nucleotide and amino acid levels, respectively, compared to the other USUV strains. Our phylogenetic analyses support the serological identification of CAR_1969 as a subtype of USUV.
In this study, we investigate the genetic diversity of USUV in Africa and the phylogenetic relationship of isolates from Africa and Europe for the first time. The results suggest a low genetic diversity within USUV, the existence of a distinct USUV subtype strain, and support the hypothesis that USUV was introduced to Europe from Africa. Further sequencing and analysis of USUV isolates from other African countries would contribute to a better understanding of its genetic diversity and geographic distribution.
PMCID: PMC3716710  PMID: 23816256
6.  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
9.  Epigenetic regulation of an IAP retrotransposon in the aging mouse: progressive demethylation and de-silencing of the element by its repetitive induction 
Nucleic Acids Research  2002;30(11):2365-2373.
The recent insertion of a murine intracisternal A-particle (IAP) retrotransposon within one of the introns of a housekeeping gene, the circadian m.nocturnin gene, revealed a singular expression profile, both throughout the daytime and the mouse life span. Measurement of the levels of transcripts from this element by quantitative real-time RT–PCR, in organs of 1–24-month-old mice, disclosed that the inserted element—which is part of a large family of otherwise severely repressed mobile elements—becomes active upon aging, specifically in the liver where the m.nocturnin housekeeping gene is expressed in a circadian manner and induces a circadian expression of the IAP sequence. This age-dependent induction is cell-autonomous, as it persists in hepatocytes in primary culture. We further show, using methylation-sensitive enzymes, a correlation between the life-time kinetics of this process and a liver-specific demethylation of the IAP promoter. These results strongly support a model whereby the progressive demethylation and turning on of the IAP sequence is the sole result of the transient, daily activation—throughout the mouse life span—of its promoter. This phenomenon, which develops on a timescale of months to years in the aging mouse, might reveal a general epigenetic—and stochastic—process, which could account for a large series of events associated with cell and animal aging.
PMCID: PMC117196  PMID: 12034823
10.  Identification of four families of yCCR4- and Mg2+-dependent endonuclease-related proteins in higher eukaryotes, and characterization of orthologs of yCCR4 with a conserved leucine-rich repeat essential for hCAF1/hPOP2 binding 
BMC Genomics  2001;2:9.
The yeast yCCR4 factor belongs to the CCR4-NOT transcriptional regulatory complex, in which it interacts, through its leucine-rich repeat (LRR) motif with yPOP2. Recently, yCCR4 was shown to be a component of the major cytoplasmic mRNA deadenylase complex, and to contain a fold related to the Mg2+-dependent endonuclease core.
Here, we report the identification of nineteen yCCR4-related proteins in eukaryotes (including yeast, plants and animals), which all contain the yCCR4 endonuclease-like fold, with highly conserved CCR4-specific residues. Phylogenetic and genomic analyses show that they form four distinct families, one of which contains the yCCR4 orthologs. The orthologs in animals possess a leucine-rich repeat domain. We show, using two-hybrid and far-Western assays, that the human member binds to the human yPOP2 homologs, i.e. hCAF1 and hPOP2, in a LRR-dependent manner.
We have identified the mammalian orthologs of yCCR4 and have shown that the human member binds to the human yPOP2 homologs, thus strongly suggesting conservation of the CCR4-NOT complex from yeast to human. All members of the four identified yCCR4-related protein families show stricking conservation of the endonuclease-like catalytic motifs of the yCCR4 C-terminal domain and therefore constitute a new family of potential deadenylases in mammals.
PMCID: PMC61044  PMID: 11747467

Results 1-10 (10)