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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.  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
5.  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
7.  Restriction by APOBEC3 proteins of endogenous retroviruses with an extracellular life cycle: ex vivo effects and in vivo "traces" on the murine IAPE and human HERV-K elements 
Retrovirology  2008;5:75.
APOBEC3 cytosine deaminases have been demonstrated to restrict infectivity of a series of retroviruses, with different efficiencies depending on the retrovirus. In addition, APOBEC3 proteins can severely restrict the intracellular transposition of a series of retroelements with a strictly intracellular life cycle, including the murine IAP and MusD LTR-retrotransposons.
Here we show that the IAPE element, which is the infectious progenitor of the strictly intracellular IAP elements, and the infectious human endogenous retrovirus HERV-K are restricted by both murine and human APOBEC3 proteins in an ex vivo assay for infectivity, with evidence in most cases of strand-specific G-to-A editing of the proviruses, with the expected signatures. In silico analysis of the naturally occurring genomic copies of the corresponding endogenous elements performed on the mouse and human genomes discloses "traces" of APOBEC3-editing, with the specific signature of the murine APOBEC3 and human APOBEC3G enzymes, respectively, and to a variable extent depending on the family member.
These results indicate that the IAPE and HERV-K elements, which can only replicate via an extracellular infection cycle, have been restricted at the time of their entry, amplification and integration into their target host genomes by definite APOBEC3 proteins, most probably acting in evolution to limit the mutagenic effect of these endogenized extracellular parasites.
PMCID: PMC2531183  PMID: 18702815
8.  Murine Endogenous Retrovirus MuERV-L Is the Progenitor of the “Orphan” Epsilon Viruslike Particles of the Early Mouse Embryo▿  
Journal of Virology  2007;82(3):1622-1625.
Viruslike particles which displayed a peculiar wheellike appearance that distinguished them from A-, B- or C-type particles had previously been described in the early mouse embryo. The maximum expression of these so-called epsilon particles was observed in two-cell-stage embryos, followed by their rapid decline at later stages of development and no particles detected at the zygote one-cell stage. Here, we show that these particles are in fact produced by a newly discovered murine endogenous retrovirus (ERV) belonging to the widespread family of mammalian ERV-L elements and named MuERV-L. Using antibodies that we raised against the Gag protein of these elements, Western blot analysis and in toto immunofluorescence studies of the embryos at various stages disclosed the same developmental expression profile as that observed for epsilon particles. Using expression vectors for cloned, full-length, entirely coding MuERV-L copies and cell transfection, direct identification of the epsilon particles was finally achieved by high-resolution electron microscopy.
PMCID: PMC2224431  PMID: 18045933

Results 1-8 (8)