Endogenous retroviruses in systemic response to stress signals

Shock. 2008 Aug;30(2):105-16. doi: 10.1097/SHK.0b013e31816a363f.


Infection of germline cells with retroviruses initiates permanent proviral colonization of the germline genome. The germline-integrated proviruses, called endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), are inherited to offspring in a Mendelian order and belong to the transposable element family. Endogenous retroviruses and other long terminal repeat retroelements constitute ~8% and ~10% of the human and mouse genomes, respectively. It is likely that each individual has a distinct genomic ERV profile. Recent studies have revealed that a substantial fraction of ERVs retains the coding potentials necessary for virion assembly and replication. There are several layers of potential mechanisms controlling ERV expression: intracellular transcription environment (e.g., transcription factor pool, splicing machinery, hormones), epigenetic status of the genome (e.g., proviral methylation, histone acetylation), profile of transcription regulatory elements on each ERV's promoter, and a range of stress signals (e.g., injury, infection, environment). Endogenous retroviruses may exert pathophysiologic effects by infection followed by random reintegration into the genome, by their gene products (e.g., envelope, superantigen), and by altering the expression of neighboring genes. Several studies have provided evidence that ERVs are associated with a range of pathogenic processes involving multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, breast cancer, and the response to burn injury. For instance, the proinflammatory properties of the human ERV-W envelope protein play a central role in demyelination of oligodendrocytes. As reviewed in this article, recent advances in ERV biology and mammalian genomics suggest that ERVs may have a profound influence on various pathogenic processes including the response to injury and infection. Understanding the roles of ERVs in the pathogenesis of injury and infection will broaden insights into the underlying mechanisms of systemic immune disorder and organ failure in these patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / genetics
  • Endogenous Retroviruses / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Oxidative Stress / genetics*
  • Signal Transduction / genetics
  • Virion / genetics
  • Virion / physiology
  • Virus Diseases / genetics
  • Virus Diseases / metabolism*
  • Virus Diseases / physiopathology
  • Virus Diseases / virology*
  • Virus Replication / genetics
  • Virus Replication / physiology