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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Mar 1;108(9):3624-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016201108. Epub 2011 Feb 7.

Endogenous retrovirus drives hitherto unknown proapoptotic p63 isoforms in the male germ line of humans and great apes.

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Department of Molecular Oncology, Göttingen Center of Molecular Biosciences, University of Göttingen, D-37077 Göttingen, Germany.


TAp63, but not its homolog p53, eliminates oocytes that suffered DNA damage. An equivalent gene for guarding the male germ line is currently not known. Here we identify hitherto unknown human p63 transcripts with unique 5'-ends derived from incorporated exons upstream of the currently mapped TP63 gene. These unique p63 transcripts are highly and specifically expressed in testis. Their most upstream region corresponds to a LTR of the human endogenous retrovirus 9 (ERV9). The insertion of this LTR upstream of the TP63 locus occurred only recently in evolution and is unique to humans and great apes (Hominidae). A corresponding p63 protein is the sole p63 species in healthy human testis, and is strongly expressed in spermatogenic precursors but not in mature spermatozoa. In response to DNA damage, this human male germ-cell-encoded TAp63 protein (designated GTAp63) is activated by caspase cleavage near its carboxyterminal domain and induces apoptosis. Human testicular cancer tissues and cell lines largely lost p63 expression. However, pharmacological inhibition of histone deacetylases completely restores p63 expression in testicular cancer cells (>3,000-fold increase). Our data support a model whereby testis-specific GTAp63 protects the genomic integrity of the male germ line and acts as a tumor suppressor. In Hominidae, this guardian function was greatly enhanced by integration of an endogenous retrovirus upstream of the TP63 locus that occurred 15 million years ago. By providing increased germ-line stability, this event may have contributed to the evolution of hominids and enabled their long reproductive periods.

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