Background: Endogenous retroviruses contribute to the evolution of the host genome and can be associated with disease. Human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV-K) is related to the mouse mammary tumor virus and is present in the genomes of humans, apes and cercopithecoids (Old World monkeys). It is unknown how long ago in primate evolution the full-length HERV-K proviruses that are in the human genome today were formed.
Results: Ten full-length HERV-K proviruses were cloned from the human genome. Using provirus-specific probes, eight of the ten were found to be present in a genetically diverse set of humans but not in other extant hominoids. Intact preintegration sites for each of these eight proviruses were present in the apes. A ninth provirus was detected in the human, chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla genomes, but not in the orang-utan genome. The tenth was found only in humans, chimpanzees and bonobos. Complete sequencing of six of the human-specific proviruses showed that full-length open reading frames for the retroviral protein precursors Gag-Pro-Pol or Env were each present in multiple proviruses.
Conclusions: At least eight full-length HERV-K genomes that are in the human germline today integrated after humans diverged from chimpanzees. All of the viral open reading frames and cis-acting sequences necessary for HERV-K replication must have been intact during the recent time when these proviruses formed. Multiple full-length open reading frames for all HERV-K proteins are present in the human genome today.