Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) are the remnants of ancient retroviral infections of germ cells. Previous work identified one of the youngest feline ERV groups, ERV-DC, and reported that two ERV-DC loci, ERV-DC10 and ERV-DC18 (ERV-DC10/DC18), can replicate in cultured cells. Here, we identified another replication-competent provirus, ERV-DC14, on chromosome C1q32. ERV-DC14 differs from ERV-DC10/DC18 in its phylogeny, receptor usage, and, most notably, transcriptional activities; although ERV-DC14 can replicate in cultured cells, it cannot establish a persistent infection owing to its low transcriptional activity. Furthermore, we examined ERV-DC transcription and its regulation in feline tissues. Quantitative reverse transcription-PCR (RT-PCR) detected extremely low ERV-DC10 expression levels in feline tissues, and bisulfite sequencing showed that 5' long terminal repeats (LTRs) of ERV-DC10/DC18 are significantly hypermethylated in feline blood cells. Reporter assays found that the 5'-LTR promoter activities of ERV-DC10/DC18 are high, whereas that of ERV-DC14 is low. This difference in promoter activity is due to a single substitution from A to T in the LTR, and reverse mutation at this nucleotide in ERV-DC14 enhanced its replication and enabled it to persistently infect cultured cells. Therefore, ERV-DC LTRs can be divided into two types based on this nucleotide, the A type or T type, which have strong or attenuated promoter activity, respectively. Notably, ERV-DCs with T-type LTRs, such as ERV-DC14, have expanded in the cat genome significantly more than A-type ERV-DCs, despite their low promoter activities. Our results provide insights into how the host controls potentially infectious ERVs and, conversely, how ERVs adapt to and invade the host genome.
Importance: The domestic cat genome contains many endogenous retroviruses, including ERV-DCs. These ERV-DCs have been acquired through germ cell infections with exogenous retroviruses. Some of these ERV-DCs are still capable of producing infectious virions. Hosts must tightly control these ERVs because replication-competent viruses in the genome pose a risk to the host. Here, we investigated how ERV-DCs are adapted by their hosts. Replication-competent viruses with strong promoter activity, such as ERV-DC10 and ERV-DC18, were suppressed by promoter methylation in LTRs. On the other hand, replication-competent viruses with weak promoter activity, such as ERV-DC14, seemed to escape strict control via promoter methylation by the host. Interestingly, ERV-DCs with weak promoter activity, such as ERV-DC14, have expanded in the cat genome significantly more than ERV-DCs with strong promoter activity. Our results improve the understanding of the host-virus conflict and how ERVs adapt in their hosts over time.
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