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J Virol. 2012 Jan;86(1):262-76. doi: 10.1128/JVI.00602-11. Epub 2011 Oct 26.

Characterization of human endogenous retroviral elements in the blood of HIV-1-infected individuals.

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  • 1Department of Internal Medicine, and Programs in Cancer Biology, Immunology, and Cellular and Molecular Biology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.


We previously reported finding the RNA of a type K human endogenous retrovirus, HERV-K (HML-2), at high titers in the plasma of HIV-1-infected and cancer patients (R. Contreras-Galindo et al., J. Virol. 82:9329-9236, 2008.). The extent to which the HERV-K (HML-2) proviruses become activated and the nature of their activated viral RNAs remain important questions. Therefore, we amplified and sequenced the full-length RNA of the env gene of the type 1 and 2 HERV-K (HML-2) viruses collected from the plasma of seven HIV-1-infected patients over a period of 1 to 3 years and from five breast cancer patients in order to reconstruct the genetic evolution of these viruses. HERV-K (HML-2) RNA was found in plasma fractions of HIV-1 patients at a density of ∼1.16 g/ml that contained both immature and correctly processed HERV-K (HML-2) proteins and virus-like particles that were recognized by anti-HERV-K (HML-2) antibodies. RNA sequences from novel HERV-K (HML-2) proviruses were discovered, including K111, which is specifically active during HIV-1 infection. Viral RNA arose from complete proviruses and proviruses devoid of a 5' long terminal repeat, suggesting that the expression of HERV-K (HML-2) RNA in these patients may involve sense and antisense transcription. In HIV-1-infected individuals, the HERV-K (HML-2) viral RNA showed evidence of frequent recombination, accumulation of synonymous rather than nonsynonymous mutations, and conserved N-glycosylation sites, suggesting that some of the HERV-K (HML-2) viral RNAs have undergone reverse transcription and are under purifying selection. In contrast, HERV-K (HML-2) RNA sequences found in the blood of breast cancer patients showed no evidence of recombination and exhibited only sporadic viral mutations. This study suggests that HERV-K (HML-2) is active in HIV-1-infected patients, and the resulting RNA message reveals previously undiscovered HERV-K (HML-2) genomic sequences.

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