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Virus Genes. 1995;11(2-3):133-45.

Evolution and biological significance of human retroelements.

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III. Medizinische Klinik, Klinikum Mannheim, Universität Heidelberg, Mannheim, Federal Republic of Germany.


Retroelements comprise a substantial portion of the human genome. Their large number and ubiquitous distribution has led scientists to speculate about their evolutionary origin and their biological functions. Human endogenous retroviruses and their retrotransposon relatives represent a reservoir of possibly pathogenic retroviral genes that may be activated spontaneously or by environmental conditions. They can act as insertion mutagens and activate or inactivate cellular genes, or may be involved in chromosome aberrations by recombination of related elements on different chromosomal locations. Retroviral gene products themselves may also be pathogenic and, for example, could be implicated in the development of tumors and autoimmune diseases. On the other hand, endogenous retroviral elements and nonviral retroposons are thought to have played an important role in shaping the genomes of vertebrates by intracellular transposition events and by generating hot spots of recombination. In the course of time, some of these elements have acquired cellular functions, such as, for instance, in the regulation of gene expression. Therefore, the role of human endogenous retroviruses and retroposons in biological processes is currently a subject of great interest.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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