, Volume 39, Issue 1, pp 51-61
Date: 21 Aug 2009

The Human Endogenous Retrovirus Link between Genes and Environment in Multiple Sclerosis and in Multifactorial Diseases Associating Neuroinflammation

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Abstract

Endogenous retroviruses represent about 8% of the human genome and belong to the superfamily of transposable and retrotransposable genetic elements. Altogether, these mobile genetic elements and their numerous inactivated “junk” sequences represent nearly one half of the human DNA. Nonetheless, a significant part of this “non-conventional” genome has retained potential activity. Epigenetic control is notably involved in silencing most of these genetic elements but certain environmental factors such as viruses are known to dysregulate their expression in susceptible cells. More particularly, embryonal cells with limited gene methylation are most susceptible to uncontrolled activation of these mobile genetic elements by, e.g., viral infections. In particular, certain viruses transactivate promoters from endogenous retroviral family type W (HERV-W). HERV-W RNA was first isolated in circulating viral particles (Multiple Sclerosis-associated RetroViral element, MSRV) that have been associated with the evolution and prognosis of multiple sclerosis. HERV-W elements encode a powerful immunopathogenic envelope protein (ENV) that activates a pro-inflammatory and autoimmune cascade through interaction with Toll-like receptor 4 on immune cells. This ENV protein has repeatedly been detected in MS brain lesions and may be involved in other diseases. Epigenetic factors controlling HERV-W ENV protein expression then reveal critical. This review addresses the gene–environment epigenetic interface of such HERV-W elements and its potential involvement in disease.