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Bioessays. 2016 Jan;38(1):109-17. doi: 10.1002/bies.201500096.

Pluripotency and the endogenous retrovirus HERVH: Conflict or serendipity?

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Max-Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association, Berlin, Germany.
Department of Medical Genetics and British Columbia Cancer Agency, Terry Fox Laboratory, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath, Bath, Somerset, UK.


Remnants of ancient retroviral infections during evolution litter all mammalian genomes. In modern humans, such endogenous retroviral (ERV) sequences comprise at least 8% of the genome. While ERVs and other types of transposable elements undoubtedly contribute to the genomic "junk yard", functions for some ERV sequences have been demonstrated, with growing evidence that ERVs can be important players in gene regulatory processes. Here we focus on one particular large family of human ERVs, termed HERVH, which several recent studies suggest has a key regulatory role in human pluripotent stem cells. Remarkably, this is not the first instance of an ERV controlling pluripotency. We speculate as to why this convergent evolution might have come about, suggesting that it may reflect selection on the virus to extend the time available for transposition. Alternatively it may reflect serendipity alone.


ERV; LBP9; endogenous retrovirus; host defense; naïve; pluripotency; primate

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