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Nucleic Acids Res. 2007;35(14):4743-54. Epub 2007 Jul 7.

Widely variable endogenous retroviral methylation levels in human placenta.

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Terry Fox Laboratory, British Columbia Cancer Research Centre, Vancouver, BC, Canada.


It is generally assumed that transposable elements, including endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), are silenced by DNA methylation/chromatin structure in mammalian cells. However, there have been very few experimental studies to examine the methylation status of human ERVs. In this study, we determined and compared the methylation status of the 5' long terminal repeats (LTRs) of different copies of the human endogenous retrovirus (HERV) family HERV-E, which are inserted in various genomic contexts. We found that three HERV-E LTRs which function as alternative gene promoters in placenta are unmethylated in that tissue but heavily methylated in blood cells, where these LTRs are not active promoters. This difference is not solely due to global hypomethylation in placenta, since two general measures of methylation levels of HERV-E and HERV-K LTRs suggest only 10-15% lower overall HERV methylation in placenta compared to blood. Comparisons between methylation levels of the LTR-derived gene promoters and six random HERV-E LTRs in placenta showed that the former display significantly lower methylation levels than random LTRs. Moreover, the differences in methylation between LTRs cannot always be explained by their genomic environment, since methylation of flanking sequences can be very different from methylation of the LTR itself.

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