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The endogenous retroviral locus ERVWE1 is a bona fide gene involved in hominoid placental physiology
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Feb. 101(6):1731-1736
F. Mallet, O. Bouton, S. Prudhomme, V. Cheynet, G. Oriol, B. Bonnaud, G. Lucotte, L. Duret, B. Mandrand


The definitive demonstration of a role for a recently acquired gene is a difficult task, requiring exhaustive genetic investigations and functional analysis. The situation is indeed much more complicated when facing multicopy gene families, because most or portions of the gene are conserved among the hundred copies of the family. This is the case for the ERVWE1 locus of the human endogenous retrovirus W family (HERV-W), which encodes an envelope glycoprotein (syncytin) likely involved in trophoblast differentiation. Here we describe, in 155 individuals, the positional conservation of this locus and the preservation of the envelope ORF. Sequencing of the critical elements of the ERVWE1 provirus showed a striking conservation among the 48 alleles of 24 individuals, including the LTR elements involved in the transcriptional machinery, the splice sites involved in the maturation of subgenomic Env mRNA, and the Env ORF. The functionality and tissue specificity of the 5' LTR were demonstrated, as well as the fusogenic activity of the envelope polymorphic variants. Such functions were also shown to be preserved in the orthologous loci isolated from chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and gibbon. This functional preservation among humans and during evolution strongly argued for the involvement of this recently acquired retroviral envelope glycoprotein in hominoid placental physiology.

PMID: 14757826

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