HERV-K: the biologically most active human endogenous retrovirus family

J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr Hum Retrovirol. 1996;13 Suppl 1:S261-7. doi: 10.1097/00042560-199600001-00039.


The human genome contains a wide variety of endogenous retrovirus-like sequences. The human endogenous retrovirus type K (HERV-K) family comprises 30-50 members per haploid genome in humans and is highly conserved in Old World monkeys and apes. Some proviruses are displaying open reading frames (ORF) with coding capacity for viral particles. HERV-K sequences most likely code for the previously described human teratocarcinoma-derived virus (HTDV) and correlated expression of HERV-K Gag has been demonstrated by immunoelectron microscopy studies. Protease, but not yet reverse transcriptase (RT), enzymatic activity was demonstrated for recombinant HERV-K proteins. However, an ultrasensitive RT assay revealed specific polymerase activity associated with the HTDV particles. HERV-K transcription is specifically regulated by viral long terminal repeats and RNA is expressed at low steady-state levels in a variety of human tissues and tumours. In teratocarcinoma cell lines, HERV-K is highly expressed in a complex pattern showing full-length as well as subgenomic envelope (env) and two alternatively spliced small transcripts. The doubly spliced 1.8-kb mRNA codes for cORF protein which resembles Rev of HIV-1 and is located in the nucleolus. In addition, the cORF sequence acts as a leader and is essential for effective expression of glycosylated HERV-K Env protein. Although HERV-K sequences code for all necessary retroviral proteins, infectious particles could not yet be demonstrated. The putative implication of HERV sequences in pathophysiological processes, for example, testicular malignancies, remains to be elucidated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Viral / immunology
  • Biological Evolution
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Viral
  • Haplorhini
  • Humans
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Proviruses / genetics
  • Proviruses / ultrastructure
  • Retroviridae / genetics*
  • Retroviridae / immunology*
  • Retroviridae / ultrastructure
  • Retroviridae Infections / classification*
  • Retroviridae Infections / genetics*
  • Teratocarcinoma / genetics
  • Teratocarcinoma / virology
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Viral Proteins / genetics
  • Viral Proteins / immunology


  • Antibodies, Viral
  • Viral Proteins