Endogenous retroviruses drive KRAB zinc-finger protein family expression for tumor suppression

Sci Adv. 2020 Oct 21;6(43):eabc3020. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abc3020. Print 2020 Oct.


Gene expression aberration is a hallmark of cancers, but the mechanisms underlying such aberrations remain unclear. Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are genomic repetitive elements that potentially function as enhancers. Since numerous HERVs are epigenetically activated in tumors, their activation could cause global gene expression aberrations in tumors. Here, we show that HERV activation in tumors leads to the up-regulation of hundreds of transcriptional suppressors, namely, Krüppel-associated box domain-containing zinc-finger family proteins (KZFPs). KZFP genes are preferentially encoded nearby the activated HERVs in tumors and transcriptionally regulated by these adjacent HERVs. Increased HERV and KZFP expression in tumors was associated with better disease conditions. Increased KZFP expression in cancer cells altered the expression of genes related to the cell cycle and cell-matrix adhesion and suppressed cellular growth, migration, and invasion abilities. Our data suggest that HERV activation in tumors drives the synchronized elevation of KZFP expression, presumably leading to tumor suppression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Endogenous Retroviruses* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Transcriptional Activation
  • Zinc
  • Zinc Fingers


  • Zinc