Endogenous retroviral LTRs as promoters for human genes: a critical assessment.
Cohen CJ., Lock WM., Mager DL.
Gene regulatory changes are thought to be major factors driving species evolution, with creation of new regulatory regions likely being instrumental in contributing to diversity among vertebrates. There is growing appreciation for the role of transposable elements (TEs) in gene regulation and, indeed, laboratory investigations have confirmed many specific examples of mammalian genes regulated by promoters donated by endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) or other TEs. Bioinformatics studies have revealed hundreds of additional instances where this is likely to be the case. Since the long terminal repeats (LTRs) of retroviruses naturally contain abundant transcriptional regulatory signals, roles for ERV LTRs in regulating mammalian genes are eminently plausible. Moreover, it seems reasonable that exaptation of an LTR regulatory module provides opportunities for evolution of new gene regulatory patterns. In this Review we summarize known examples of LTRs that function as human gene alternative promoters, as well as the evidence that LTR exaptation has resulted in a pattern of novel gene expression significantly different from the pattern before LTR insertion or from that of gene orthologs lacking the LTR. Available data suggest that, while new expression patterns can arise as a result of LTR usage, this situation is relatively rare and is largely restricted to the placenta. In many cases, the LTR appears to be a minor, alternative promoter with an expression pattern similar to that of the native promoter(s) and hence likely exerts a subtle overall effect on gene expression. We discuss these findings and offer evolutionary models to explain these trends.