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PLoS genetics

Differential evolutionary fate of an ancestral primate endogenous retrovirus envelope gene, the EnvV syncytin, captured for a function in placentation.


PMID 23555306

Abstract

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.