Syncytin: The Muscle behind Endogenous Retroviruses

The Biology Yak

Viruses have had a major impact on the evolutionary path of animals. They shape populations through infectious diseases, and, as recently discovered, through the more subtle process of endogenisation into the genome. Retroviruses are a class of virus – think HIV and CMV– that insert their genetic material into genome of the host, as part of their life cycle. About 8% of the human genome is derived from retroviral insertions- not an insignificant amount when you consider that only 1.5% of the genome codes for functioning proteins.

Syncytin is a mammalian gene that originates from an endogenous retrovirus (ERV). Syncytin began in an ancient virus, as a gene encoding a protein that assisted with viral fusion and entry into the host cell. It has been adapted by mammals, and is important in the formation of the placenta through initiating cell-cell fusion. Syncytin genes have undergone strong positive selection, suggesting that these genes have contributed…

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