Embryonic expression of endogenous retroviral RNAs in somatic tissues adjacent to the Oikopleura germline
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Selective pressure to maintain small genome size implies control of transposable elements, and most old classes of retrotransposons are indeed absent from the very compact genome of the tunicate Oikopleura dioica. Nonetheless, two families of retrotransposons are present, including the Tor elements. The gene organization within Tor elements is similar to that of LTR retrotransposons and retroviruses. In addition to gag and pol, many Tor elements carry a third gene encoding viral envelope-like proteins (Env) that may mediate infection. We show that the Tor family contains distinct classes of elements. In some classes, env mRNA is transcribed from the 5′LTR as in retroviruses. In others, env is transcribed from an additional promoter located downstream of the 5′LTR. Tor Env proteins are membrane-associated glycoproteins which exhibit some features of viral membrane fusion proteins. Whereas some elements are expressed in the adult testis, many others are specifically expressed in embryonic somatic cells adjacent to primordial germ cells. Such embryonic expression depends on determinants present in the Tor elements and not on their surrounding genomic environment. Our study shows that unusual modes of transcription and expression close to the germline may contribute to the proliferation of Tor elements.