A Cell Fusion-Based Screening Method Identifies Glycosylphosphatidylinositol-Anchored Protein Ly6e as the Receptor for Mouse Endogenous Retroviral Envelope Syncytin-A

J Virol. 2017 Aug 24;91(18):e00832-17. doi: 10.1128/JVI.00832-17. Print 2017 Sep 15.


Syncytin genes are envelope genes of retroviral origin that have been exapted for a role in placentation. They are involved in the formation of a syncytial structure (the syncytiotrophoblast) at the fetomaternal interface via their fusogenic activity. The mouse placenta is unique among placental mammals since the fetomaternal interface comprises two syncytiotrophoblast layers (ST-I and ST-II) instead of one, as observed in humans and all other hemochorial placentae. Each layer specifically expresses a distinct mouse syncytin, namely, syncytin-A (SynA) for ST-I and syncytin-B (SynB) for ST-II, which have been shown to be essential to placentogenesis and embryo survival. Their cognate cellular receptors, which are necessary to mediate cell-cell fusion and syncytiotrophoblast formation, are still unknown. By devising a sensitive method that combines a cell-cell fusion assay with the screening of a mouse cDNA library, we succeeded in identifying the glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)-anchored membrane protein lymphocyte antigen 6E (Ly6e) as a candidate receptor for SynA. Transfection of cells with the cloned receptor led to their fusion to cells expressing SynA, with no cross-reactive fusion activity with SynB. Knocking down Ly6e greatly reduced SynA-induced cell fusion, thus suggesting that Ly6e is the sole receptor for SynA in vivo Interaction of SynA with Ly6e was further demonstrated by a competition assay using the soluble ectodomain of Ly6e. Finally, reverse transcription-quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) analysis of Ly6e expression on a representative panel of mouse tissues shows that it is significantly expressed in the mouse placenta together with SynA.IMPORTANCE Syncytin genes are envelope genes of endogenous retroviruses, co-opted for a physiological function in placentation. Syncytins are fusogenic proteins that mediate cell-cell fusion by interacting with receptors present on the partner cells. Here, by devising a sensitive in vitro fusion assay that enables the high-throughput screening of normalized cDNA libraries, we identified the long-sought receptor for syncytin-A (SynA), a mouse syncytin responsible for syncytiotrophoblast formation at the maternofetal interface of the mouse placenta. This protein, Ly6e (lymphocyte antigen 6E), is a GPI-anchored membrane protein, and small interfering RNA (siRNA) experiments targeting its deletion as well as a decoy assay using a recombinant soluble receptor show that Ly6e is the necessary and sufficient partner of SynA. Its profile of expression is consistent with a role in both ancestral endogenization of a SynA founder retrovirus and present-day placenta formation. This study provides a powerful general method to identify genes involved in cell-cell fusion processes.

Keywords: endogenous retrovirus; envelope protein; mouse; placenta; receptor; syncytin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antigens, Ly / genetics
  • Antigens, Ly / metabolism*
  • Cell Fusion*
  • Gene Expression
  • Gene Knockdown Techniques
  • Genetic Testing / methods
  • Mice
  • Pregnancy Proteins / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / genetics
  • Receptors, Cell Surface / metabolism*


  • Antigens, Ly
  • Ly6 protein, mouse
  • Pregnancy Proteins
  • Receptors, Cell Surface
  • syncytin-A protein, mouse