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J Virol. 2012 Aug;86(15):7790-805. doi: 10.1128/JVI.07215-11. Epub 2012 May 16.

Expression of human endogenous retrovirus type K (HML-2) is activated by the Tat protein of HIV-1.

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  • 1Department of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.


Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) make up 8% of the human genome. The expression of HERV-K (HML-2), the family of HERVs that most recently entered the genome, is tightly regulated but becomes markedly increased after infection with HIV-1. To better understand the mechanisms involved in this activation, we explored the role of the HIV-1 Tat protein in inducing the expression of these endogenous retroviral genes. Administration of recombinant HIV-1 Tat protein caused a 13-fold increase in HERV-K (HML-2) gag RNA transcripts in Jurkat T cells and a 10-fold increase in primary lymphocytes, and the expression of the HERV-K (HML-2) rec and np9 oncogenes was also markedly increased. This activation was seen especially in lymphocytes and monocytic cells, the natural hosts for HIV-1 infection. Luciferase reporter gene assays demonstrated that the effect of Tat on HERV-K (HML-2) expression occurred at the level of the transcriptional promoter. The transcription factors NF-κB and NF-AT contribute to the Tat-induced activation of the promoter, as shown by chromatin immunoprecipitation assays, mutational analysis of the HERV-K (HML-2) long terminal repeat, and treatments with agents that inhibit NF-κB or NF-AT activation. These studies demonstrate that HIV-1 Tat plays an important role in activating expression of HERV-K (HML-2) in the setting of HIV-1 infection.

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