We previously showed that the envelope (env) sequence of a human endogenous retrovirus (HERV)-W locus on chromosome Xq22.3 is transcribed in human peripheral blood mononuclear cells. The env open reading frame (ORF) of this locus is interrupted by a premature stop at codon 39, but otherwise harbors a long ORF for an N-terminally truncated 475 amino acid Env protein, starting at an in-frame ATG at codon 68. We set out to characterize the protein encoded by that ORF.
Transient expression of the 475 amino acid Xq22.3 HERV-W env ORF produced an N-terminally truncated HERV-W Env protein, as detected by the monoclonal anti-HERV-W Env antibodies 6A2B2 and 13H5A5. Remarkably, reversion of the stop at codon 39 in Xq22.3 HERV-W env reconstituted a full-length HERV-W Xq22.3 Env protein. Similar to the full-length HERV-W Env protein Syncytin-1, reconstituted full-length Xq22.3 HERV-W Env is glycosylated, forms oligomers, and is expressed at the cell surface. In contrast, Xq22.3 HERV-W Env is unglycosylated, does not form oligomers, and is located intracellularly, probably due to lack of a signal peptide. Finally, we reconfirm by immunohistochemistry that monoclonal antibody 6A2B2 detects an antigen expressed in placenta and multiple sclerosis brain lesions.
A partially defective HERV-W env gene located on chromosome Xq22.3, which we propose to designate ERVWE2, has retained coding capacity and can produce ex vivo an N-terminally truncated Env protein, named N-Trenv. Detection of an antigen by 6A2B2 in placenta and multiple sclerosis lesions opens the possibility that N-Trenv could be expressed in vivo. More generally, our findings are compatible with the idea that defective HERV elements may be capable of producing incomplete HERV proteins that, speculatively, may exert functions in human physiology or pathology.