Human endogenous retrovirus (HERV) expression is currently studied for its possible activation by HIV infection. In this context, the HERV-K(HML2) group is the most investigated: it has been proposed that HIV-1 infection can prompt HML2 transcription, and that HML2 proteins can affect HIV-1 replication, either complementing HIV or possibly influencing antiretroviral therapy. However, little information is available on the expression of other HERV groups in HIV infection. In the present study, we used a bioinformatics pipeline to investigate the transcriptional modulation of approximately 3250 well-characterized HERV loci, comparing their expression in a public RNA-seq profile, including a HIV-1-infected and a control T cell culture. In our pilot study, we found approximately 200 HERV loci belonging to 35 HERV groups that were expressed in one or both conditions, with transcripts per million (TPM) values from 1 to >500. Intriguingly, HML2 elements constituted only the 3% of expressed HERV loci, and in most cases (160) HERV expression was downregulated in the HIV-infected culture, showing from a 1- to 14-fold decrease as compared to uninfected cells. HERV transcriptome has been inferred de novo and employed to predict a total of about 950 HERV open reading frames (ORFs). These have been validated according to the coding potential and estimated abundance of the corresponding transcripts, leading to a set of 57 putative proteins potentially encoded by 23 HERV loci. Analysis showed that some individual loci have a coding potential that deserves further investigation. Among them, a HML6 provirus at locus 19q13.43 was predicted to produce a transcript showing the highest TPM among HERV-derived transcripts, being upregulated in HIV+ cells and inferred to produce Gag and Env puteins with possible biological activity.
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