Reconstitution of an infectious human endogenous retrovirus.
The human genome represents a fossil record of ancient retroviruses that once replicated in the ancestors of contemporary humans. Indeed, approximately 8% of human DNA is composed of sequences that are recognizably retroviral. Despite occasional reports associating human endogenous retrovirus (HERV) expression with human disease, almost all HERV genomes contain obviously inactivating mutations, and none are thought to be capable of replication. Nonetheless, one family of HERVs, namely HERV-K(HML-2), may have replicated in human ancestors less than 1 million years ago. By deriving a consensus sequence, we reconstructed a proviral clone (HERV-KCON) that likely resembles the progenitor of HERV-K(HML-2) variants that entered the human genome within the last few million years. We show that HERV-KCON Gag and protease proteins mediate efficient assembly and processing into retrovirus-like particles. Moreover, reporter genes inserted into the HERV-KCON genome and packaged into HERV-K particles are capable of infectious transfer and stable integration in a manner that requires reverse transcription. Additionally, we show that HERV-KCON Env is capable of pseudotyping HIV-1 particles and mediating entry into human and nonhuman cell lines. Furthermore, we show that HERV-KCON is resistant to inhibition by the human retrovirus restriction factors tripartite motif 5alpha and apolipoprotein B mRNA-editing enzyme, catalytic polypeptide-like (APOBEC) 3G but is inhibited by APOBEC 3F. Overall, the resurrection of this extinct infectious agent in a functional form from molecular fossils should enable studies of the molecular virology and pathogenic potential of this ancient human retrovirus.