Molecular diversity and phenotypic pleiotropy of ancient genomic regulatory loci derived from human endogenous retrovirus type H (HERVH) promoter LTR7 and HERVK promoter LTR5_Hs and their contemporary impacts on pathophysiology of Modern Humans

Mol Genet Genomics. 2022 Nov;297(6):1711-1740. doi: 10.1007/s00438-022-01954-7. Epub 2022 Sep 19.


Timelines of population-level effects of viruses on humans varied from the evolutionary scale of million years to contemporary spread of viral infections. Correspondingly, these events are exemplified by: (i) emergence of human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) from ancient germline infections leading to stable integration of viral genomes into human chromosomes; and (ii) wide-spread viral infections reaching a global pandemic state such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite significant efforts, understanding of HERV's roles in governance of genomic regulatory networks, their impacts on primate evolution and development of human-specific physiological and pathological phenotypic traits remains limited. Remarkably, present analyses revealed that expression of a dominant majority of genes (1696 of 1944 genes; 87%) constituting high-confidence down-steam regulatory targets of defined HERV loci was significantly altered in cells infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, a pathogen causing the global COVID-19 pandemic. This study focused on defined sub-sets of DNA sequences derived from HERVs that are expressed at specific stages of human preimplantation embryogenesis and exert regulatory actions essential for self-renewal and pluripotency. Evolutionary histories of LTR7/HERVH and LTR5_Hs/HERVK were charted based on evidence of the earliest presence and expansion of highly conserved (HC) LTR sequences. Sequence conservation analyses of most recent releases 17 primate species' genomes revealed that LTR7/HERVH have entered germlines of primates in Africa after the separation of the New World Monkey lineage, while LTR5_Hs/HERVK successfully colonized primates' germlines after the segregation of Gibbons' species. Subsequently, both LTR7 and LTR5_Hs undergo a marked ~ fourfold-fivefold expansion in genomes of Great Apes. Timelines of quantitative expansion of both LTR7 and LTR5_Hs loci during evolution of Great Apes appear to replicate the consensus evolutionary sequence of increasing cognitive and behavioral complexities of non-human primates, which seems particularly striking for LTR7 loci and 11 distinct LTR7 subfamilies. Consistent with previous reports, identified in this study, 351 human-specific (HS) insertions of LTR7 (175 loci) and LTR5_Hs (176 loci) regulatory sequences have been linked to genes implicated in establishment and maintenance of naïve and primed pluripotent states and preimplantation embryogenesis phenotypes. Unexpectedly, HS-LTRs manifest regulatory connectivity to genes encoding markers of 12 distinct cells' populations of fetal gonads, as well as genes implicated in physiology and pathology of human spermatogenesis, including Y-linked spermatogenic failure, oligo- and azoospermia. Granular interrogations of genes linked with 11 distinct LTR7 subfamilies revealed that mammalian offspring survival (MOS) genes seem to remain one of consistent regulatory targets throughout ~ 30 MYA of the divergent evolution of LTR7 loci. Differential GSEA of MOS versus non-MOS genes identified clearly discernable dominant enrichment patterns of phenotypic traits affected by MOS genes linked with LTR7 (562 MOS genes) and LTR5_Hs (126 MOS genes) regulatory loci across the large panel of genomics and proteomics databases reflecting a broad spectrum of human physiological and pathological traits. GSEA of LTR7-linked MOS genes identified more than 2200 significantly enriched records of human common and rare diseases and gene signatures of 466 significantly enriched records of Human Phenotype Ontology traits, including Autosomal Dominant (92 genes) and Autosomal Recessive (93 genes) Inheritance. LTR7 regulatory elements appear linked with genes implicated in functional and morphological features of central nervous system, including synaptic transmission and protein-protein interactions at synapses, as well as gene signatures differentially regulated in cells of distinct neurodevelopmental stages and morphologically diverse cell types residing and functioning in human brain. These include Neural Stem/Precursor cells, Radial Glia cells, Bergman Glia cells, Pyramidal cells, Tanycytes, Immature neurons, Interneurons, Trigeminal neurons, GABAergic neurons, and Glutamatergic neurons. GSEA of LTR7-linked genes identified significantly enriched gene sets encoding markers of more than 80 specialized types of neurons and markers of 521 human brain regions, most prominently, subiculum and dentate gyrus. Identification and characterization of 1944 genes comprising high-confidence down-steam regulatory targets of LTR7 and/or LTR5_Hs loci validated and extended these observations by documenting marked enrichments for genes implicated in neoplasm metastasis, intellectual disability, autism, multiple cancer types, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and other brain disorders. Overall, genes representing down-stream regulatory targets of ancient retroviral LTRs exert the apparently cooperative and exceedingly broad phenotypic impacts on human physiology and pathology. This is exemplified by altered expression of 93% high-confidence LTR targets in cells infected by contemporary viruses, revealing a convergence of virus-inflicted aberrations on genomic regulatory circuitry governed by ancient retroviral LTR elements and interference with human cells' differentiation programs.

Keywords: Azoospermia; COVID-19 pandemic; Human embryogenesis; Human endogenous retrovirus type H (HERVH); Human endogenous retrovirus type K (HERVK); Human spermatogenesis; LTR5_Hs; LTR7 subfamilies; Mammalian offspring survival genes; Neoplasm metastasis; Oligospermia; Primate evolution; Protein–protein interactions at synapses; Retrotransposition; SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus; Synaptic transmission.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • COVID-19*
  • Endogenous Retroviruses* / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Genomics
  • Hominidae* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mammals / genetics
  • Pandemics
  • Phenotype
  • Primates / genetics
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Steam
  • Terminal Repeat Sequences / genetics


  • Steam