The placenta is a fast-evolving organ with large morphological and histological differences across eutherians, but the genetic changes driving placental evolution have not been fully elucidated. Transposable elements, through their capacity to quickly generate genetic variation and affect host gene regulation, may have helped to define species-specific trophoblast gene expression programs. Here we assess the contribution of transposable elements to human trophoblast gene expression as enhancers or promoters. Using epigenomic data from primary human trophoblast and trophoblast stem-cell lines, we identified multiple endogenous retrovirus families with regulatory potential that lie close to genes with preferential expression in trophoblast. These largely primate-specific elements are associated with inter-species gene expression differences and are bound by transcription factors with key roles in placental development. Using genetic editing, we demonstrate that several elements act as transcriptional enhancers of important placental genes, such as CSF1R and PSG5. We also identify an LTR10A element that regulates ENG expression, affecting secretion of soluble endoglin, with potential implications for preeclampsia. Our data show that transposons have made important contributions to human trophoblast gene regulation, and suggest that their activity may affect pregnancy outcomes.
© 2023. The Author(s).