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Concept: Retrovirus


Two integrases inhibitors, raltegravir and elvitegravir, have now been approved by regulatory agencies for use in the treatment of HIV-infected patients; and the approval of a third such drug, dolutegravir, is expected during 2013 on the basis of several phase 3 clinical trials. The advent of this new class of antiretroviral (ARV) medications represents a major advance in the management of HIV infection, and each of these three drugs can be expected to continue to be an important component of ARV combination regimens.

Concepts: Antiretroviral drug, HIV, Pharmacology, Reverse transcriptase, Retrovirus, Integrase inhibitor, Raltegravir, Integrase


Stable integration of HIV proviral DNA into host cell chromosomes, a hallmark and essential feature of the retroviral life cycle, establishes the infection permanently. Current antiretroviral combination drug therapy cannot cure HIV infection. However, expressing an engineered HIV-1 long terminal repeat (LTR) site-specific recombinase (Tre), shown to excise integrated proviral DNA in vitro, may provide a novel and highly promising antiviral strategy. We report here the conditional expression of Tre-recombinase from an advanced lentiviral self-inactivation (SIN) vector in HIV-infected cells. We demonstrate faithful transgene expression, resulting in accurate provirus excision in the absence of cytopathic effects. Moreover, pronounced Tre-mediated antiviral effects are demonstrated in vivo, particularly in humanized Rag2(-/-)γc(-/-) mice engrafted with either Tre-transduced primary CD4(+) T cells, or Tre-transduced CD34(+) hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSC). Taken together, our data support the use of Tre-recombinase in novel therapy strategies aiming to provide a cure for HIV.

Concepts: Antiretroviral drug, HIV, DNA, Gene, Cell, Bacteria, Retrovirus, Long terminal repeat


Endogenous retroviral sequences provide a molecular fossil record of ancient infections whose analysis might illuminate mechanisms of viral extinction. A close relative of gammaretroviruses, HERV-T, circulated in primates for ~25 million years (MY) before apparent extinction within the past ~8 MY. Construction of a near-complete catalog of HERV-T fossils in primate genomes allowed us to estimate a ~32 MY old ancestral sequence and reconstruct a functional envelope protein (ancHTenv) that could support infection of a pseudotyped modern gammaretrovirus. Using ancHTenv, we identify monocarboxylate transporter-1 (MCT-1) as a receptor used by HERV-T for attachment and infection. A single HERV-T provirus in hominid genomes includes an env gene (hsaHTenv) that has been uniquely preserved. This apparently exapted HERV-T env could not support virion infection but could block ancHTenv mediated infection, by causing MCT-1 depletion from cell surfaces. Thus, hsaHTenv may have contributed to HERV-T extinction, and could also potentially regulate cellular metabolism.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Bacteria, Evolution, Molecular biology, Virus, Retrovirus, Endogenous retrovirus


Xenotransplantation is a promising strategy to alleviate the shortage of organs for human transplantation. In addition to the concern on pig-to-human immunological compatibility, the risk of cross-species transmission of porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) has impeded the clinical application of this approach. Earlier, we demonstrated the feasibility of inactivating PERV activity in an immortalized pig cell line. Here, we confirmed that PERVs infect human cells, and observed the horizontal transfer of PERVs among human cells. Using CRISPR-Cas9, we inactivated all the PERVs in a porcine primary cell line and generated PERV-inactivated pigs via somatic cell nuclear transfer. Our study highlighted the value of PERV inactivation to prevent cross-species viral transmission and demonstrated the successful production of PERV-inactivated animals to address the safety concern in clinical xenotransplantation.

Concepts: DNA, Cell, Cell biology, Retrovirus, Pig, Endogenous retrovirus, Retroviruses, Provirus


Mammalian genomes typically contain hundreds of thousands of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), derived from ancient retroviral infections. Using this molecular ‘fossil’ record, we reconstructed the natural history of a specific retrovirus lineage (ERV-Fc) that disseminated widely between ~33 and ~15 million years ago, corresponding to the Oligocene and early Miocene epochs. Intercontinental viral spread, numerous instances of interspecies transmission and emergence in hosts representing at least 11 mammalian orders, and a significant role for recombination in diversification of this viral lineage were also revealed. By reconstructing the canonical retroviral genes, we identified patterns of adaptation consistent with selection to maintain essential viral protein functions. Our results demonstrate the unique potential of the ERV fossil record for studying the processes of viral spread and emergence as they play out across macro-evolutionary timescales, such that looking back in time may prove insightful for predicting the long-term consequences of newly emerging viral infections.

Concepts: HIV, DNA, Bacteria, Molecular biology, Virus, RNA virus, Retrovirus, Retroviruses


Retroviral gene therapy offers immense potential to treat many genetic diseases and has already shown efficacy in clinical trials. However, retroviral vector mediated genotoxicity remains a major challenge and clinically relevant approaches to reduce integration near genes and proto-oncogenes are needed. Foamy retroviral vectors have several advantages over gammaretroviral and lentiviral vectors including a potentially safer integration profile and a lower propensity to activate nearby genes. Here we successfully retargeted foamy retroviral vectors away from genes and into satellite regions enriched for trimethylated histone H3 at lysine 9 by modifying the foamy virus Gag and Pol proteins. Retargeted foamy retroviral vectors integrated near genes and proto-oncogenes less often (p < 0.001) than controls. Importantly, retargeted foamy retroviral vectors can be produced at high, clinically relevant titers (>10(7) transducing units/ml), and unlike other reported retargeting approaches engineered target cells are not needed to achieve retargeting. As proof of principle for use in the clinic we show efficient transduction and retargeting in human cord blood CD34(+) cells. The modified Gag and Pol helper constructs we describe will allow any investigator to simply use these helper plasmids during vector production to retarget therapeutic foamy retroviral vectors.

Concepts: DNA, Protein, Gene, Genetics, Molecular biology, Histone, Viral vector, Retrovirus


New genetic tools are needed to understand the functional interactions between HIV and human host factors in primary cells. We recently developed a method to edit the genome of primary CD4(+) T cells by electroporation of CRISPR/Cas9 ribonucleoproteins (RNPs). Here, we adapted this methodology to a high-throughput platform for the efficient, arrayed editing of candidate host factors. CXCR4 or CCR5 knockout cells generated with this method are resistant to HIV infection in a tropism-dependent manner, whereas knockout of LEDGF or TNPO3 results in a tropism-independent reduction in infection. CRISPR/Cas9 RNPs can furthermore edit multiple genes simultaneously, enabling studies of interactions among multiple host and viral factors. Finally, in an arrayed screen of 45 genes associated with HIV integrase, we identified several candidate dependency/restriction factors, demonstrating the power of this approach as a discovery platform. This technology should accelerate target validation for pharmaceutical and cell-based therapies to cure HIV infection.

Concepts: HIV, Gene, Genetics, Bacteria, Genome, Reverse transcriptase, Retrovirus, Integrase


Syncytins are envelope genes from endogenous retroviruses, “captured” for a role in placentation. They mediate cell-cell fusion, resulting in the formation of a syncytium (the syncytiotrophoblast) at the fetomaternal interface. These genes have been found in all placental mammals in which they have been searched for. Cell-cell fusion is also pivotal for muscle fiber formation and repair, where the myotubes are formed from the fusion of mononucleated myoblasts into large multinucleated structures. Here we show, taking advantage of mice knocked out for syncytins, that these captured genes contribute to myoblast fusion, with a >20% reduction in muscle mass, mean muscle fiber area and number of nuclei per fiber in knocked out mice for one of the two murine syncytin genes. Remarkably, this reduction is only observed in males, which subsequently show muscle quantitative traits more similar to those of females. In addition, we show that syncytins also contribute to muscle repair after cardiotoxin-induced injury, with again a male-specific effect on the rate and extent of regeneration. Finally, ex vivo experiments carried out on murine myoblasts demonstrate the direct involvement of syncytins in fusion, with a >40% reduction in fusion index upon addition of siRNA against both syncytins. Importantly, similar effects are observed with primary myoblasts from sheep, dog and human, with a 20-40% reduction upon addition of siRNA against the corresponding syncytins. Altogether, these results show a direct contribution of the fusogenic syncytins to myogenesis, with a demonstrated male-dependence of the effect in mice, suggesting that these captured genes could be responsible for the muscle sexual dimorphism observed in placental mammals.

Concepts: Genetics, Male, Muscle, Sex, Mammal, Murinae, Retrovirus, Eutheria


The shortage of organs for transplantation is a major barrier to the treatment of organ failure. While porcine organs are considered promising, their use has been checked by concerns about transmission of porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) to humans. Here, we describe the eradication of all PERVs in a porcine kidney epithelial cell line (PK15). We first determined the PK15 PERV copy number to be 62. Using CRISPR-Cas9, we disrupted all 62 copies of the PERV pol gene and demonstrated a >1000-fold reduction in PERV transmission to human cells using our engineered cells. Our study shows that CRISPR-Cas9 multiplexability can be as high as 62 and demonstrates the possibility that PERVs can be inactivated for clinical application to porcine-to-human xenotransplantation.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Cell, Organ, Stomach, Skin, Human anatomy, Retrovirus


Genomic data provide an excellent resource to improve understanding of retrovirus evolution and the complex relationships among viruses and their hosts. In conjunction with broad-scale in silico screening of vertebrate genomes, this resource offers an opportunity to complement data on the evolution and frequency of past retroviral spread and so evaluate future risks and limitations for horizontal transmission between different host species. Here, we develop a methodology for extracting phylogenetic signal from large endogenous retrovirus (ERV) datasets by collapsing information to facilitate broad-scale phylogenomics across a wide sample of hosts. Starting with nearly 90,000 ERVs from 60 vertebrate host genomes, we construct phylogenetic hypotheses and draw inferences regarding the designation, host distribution, origin, and transmission of the Gammaretrovirus genus and associated class I ERVs. Our results uncover remarkable depths in retroviral sequence diversity, supported within a phylogenetic context. This finding suggests that current infectious exogenous retrovirus diversity may be underestimated, adding credence to the possibility that many additional exogenous retroviruses may remain to be discovered in vertebrate taxa. We demonstrate a history of frequent horizontal interorder transmissions from a rodent reservoir and suggest that rats may have acted as important overlooked facilitators of gammaretrovirus spread across diverse mammalian hosts. Together, these results demonstrate the promise of the methodology used here to analyze large ERV datasets and improve understanding of retroviral evolution and diversity for utilization in wider applications.

Concepts: DNA, Molecular biology, Species, RNA virus, Phylogenetics, Retrovirus, Retroviruses, Feline leukemia virus