Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) represent ancestral sequences of modern retroviruses or their extinct relatives. The majority of ERVs cluster alongside exogenous retroviruses into two main groups based on phylogenetic analyses of the reverse transcriptase (RT) enzyme. Class I includes gammaretroviruses, and class II includes lentiviruses and alpha-, beta-, and deltaretroviruses. However, analyses of the transmembrane subunit (TM) of the envelope glycoprotein (env) gene result in a different topology for some retroviruses, suggesting recombination events in which heterologous env sequences have been acquired. We previously demonstrated that the TM sequences of five of the six genera of orthoretroviruses can be divided into three types, each of which infects a distinct set of vertebrate classes. Moreover, these classes do not always overlap the host range of the associated RT classes. Thus, recombination resulting in acquisition of a heterologous env gene could in theory facilitate cross-species transmissions across vertebrate classes, for example, from mammals to reptiles. Here we characterized a family of class II avian ERVs, "TgERV-F," that acquired a mammalian gammaretroviral env sequence. Although TgERV-F clusters near a sister clade to alpharetroviruses, its genome also has some features of betaretroviruses. We offer evidence that this unusual recombinant has circulated among several avian orders and may still have infectious members. In addition to documenting the infection of a nongalliform avian species by a mammalian retrovirus, TgERV-F also underscores the importance of env sequences in reconstructing phylogenies and supports a possible role for env swapping in allowing cross-species transmissions across wide taxonomic distances.
Importance: Retroviruses can sometimes acquire an envelope gene (env) from a distantly related retrovirus. Since env is a key determinant of host range, such an event affects the host range of the recombinant virus and can lead to the creation of novel retroviral lineages. Retroviruses insert viral DNA into the host DNA during infection, and therefore vertebrate genomes contain a "fossil record" of endogenous retroviral sequences thought to represent past infections of germ cells. We examined endogenous retroviral sequences in avian genomes for evidence of recombination events involving env. Although cross-species transmissions of retroviruses between vertebrate classes (from mammals to birds, for example) are thought to be rare, we here characterized a group of avian retroviruses that acquired an env sequence from a mammalian retrovirus. We offer evidence that this unusual recombinant circulated among songbirds 2 to 4 million years ago and has remained active into the recent past.