A pair of co-opted retroviral envelope syncytin genes is required for formation of the two-layered murine placental syncytiotrophoblast.
ABSTRACT: In most mammalian species, a critical step of placenta development is the fusion of trophoblast cells into a multinucleated syncytiotrophoblast layer fulfilling essential fetomaternal exchange functions. Key insights into this process came from the discovery of envelope genes of retroviral origin, the syncytins, independently acquired by the human (syncytin-1 and -2), mouse (syncytin-A and -B), and rabbit (syncytin-Ory1) genomes, with fusogenic properties and placenta-specific expression. We previously showed that mouse syncytin-A is essential for the formation of one of the two syncytiotrophoblast layers and for embryo survival. Here, we have generated syncytin-B KO mice and demonstrate that syncytin-B null placenta displays impaired formation of syncytiotrophoblast layer II (ST-II), with evidence of unfused apposed cells, and enlargement of maternal lacunae disrupting the placenta architecture. Unexpectedly, syncytin-B null embryos are viable, with only limited late-onset growth retardation and reduced neonate number. Microarray analyses identified up-regulation of the connexin 30 gene in mutant placentae, with the protein localized at the fetomaternal interface, suggesting gap junction-mediated compensatory mechanisms. Finally, double-KO mice demonstrate premature death of syncytin-A null embryos if syncytin-B is deleted, indicating cooperation between ST-I and ST-II. These findings establish that both endogenous retrovirus-derived syncytin genes contribute independently to the formation of the two syncytiotrophoblast layers during placenta formation, demonstrating a major role of retroviral gene capture, through convergent evolution, to generate multiple placental structures. Although some are absolutely required for completion of pregnancy, others are still amenable to "epigenetic" compensations, thus illustrating the complexity of the molecular machinery that developed during placental evolution.
Project description:In most mammalian species, a critical step of placental development is the fusion of trophoblast cell into a multinucleated syncytiotrophoblast layer, which separates the fetal and maternal blood circulations. Advancement in understanding this process came from the identification of two pairs of envelope genes of retroviral origin, independently acquired by the human (syncytin-1 and 2) and mouse (syncytin-A and B) genomes, specifically expressed in the placenta and with in vitro cell-cell fusion activity. We previously showed that syncytin-A is involved in the formation of one of the two syncytiotrophoblast layer of the mouse placenta -ST-I , facing the maternal lacuna- with syncytin-A null embryos dying at mid-gestation, and their placenta disclosing impaired formation of the ST-I layer. Here by generating syncytin-B KO mice, we demonstrated that syncytin-B null placenta have defects in formation of the syncytiotrophoblast layer-II facing the fetal blood vessels, with refined electron microscopy analyses showing evidence of unfused apposed cells. Lack of trophoblast fusion is associated with signs of trophoblast degeneration and with formation of huge maternal blood lacuna, ultimately disrupting the architecture of the labyrinth layer. These alterations did not result in complete abortion of syncytin-B null embryos, at variance with the syncytin-A KO phenotype, but in a reduced proportion of homozygous syncytin-B knockout individuals at birth, with evidence of late-onset embryonic growth retardation. Double knockout mice experiments demonstrate a premature death of syncytin-A null embryos if syncytin-B is deleted, thus strongly suggesting cooperative involvement of both syncytiotrophoblast layer-I and layer-II for the structural and functional integrity of the maternofetal interface and exchanges. Finally, a microarray analysis of wild-type and syncytin-B null placenta transcripts disclosed alterations in gene expression level for only a very limited number of genes, with the largest change (a 7-fold induction in the syncytin-B null placenta) observed for the connexin-30 gene. Immunohistochemistry further localized the connexin-30 protein in the labyrinth zone of mutant placenta, at the level of the fetomaternal interface. It is proposed that this might correspond to a compensatory process whereby disruption of syncytialization in syncytin-B knockout placenta is counteracted by an enhanced, gap junction mediated, cell-cell communication. These data demonstrate that syncytin-B is required for ST-II syncytial differentiation and the functional integrity of the labyrinth. Altogether, these findings definitively demonstrate that the two endogenous retroviral syncytin-A and -B Env genes contribute independently to the formation of the two syncytiotrophoblast layers during placenta formation, and provide additional insights into the subtle mechanisms of syncytiotrophoblast differentiation in the mouse. Experimental design: Placenta RNA of embryos homozygous for the syncytin-B deletion (SynB-/-) were compared to placental RNA of wild-type embryos (SynB+/+) of the same litter. Two stages of gestation, day 12 and d14, were analyzed. At day 12, 3 litters were obtained; for two of them, the RNAs were analyzed individually, and for the third one, placenta RNAs of the wild-type genotype were pooled. At day 14, one litter was obtained; RNA samples with the same genotype were pooled
Project description:Syncytin genes are envelope genes of retroviral origin that have been exapted for a role in placentation. They are involved in the formation of a syncytial structure (the syncytiotrophoblast) at the fetomaternal interface via their fusogenic activity. The mouse placenta is unique among placental mammals since the fetomaternal interface comprises two syncytiotrophoblast layers (ST-I and ST-II) instead of one, as observed in humans and all other hemochorial placentae. Each layer specifically expresses a distinct mouse syncytin, namely, syncytin-A (SynA) for ST-I and syncytin-B (SynB) for ST-II, which have been shown to be essential to placentogenesis and embryo survival. Their cognate cellular receptors, which are necessary to mediate cell-cell fusion and syncytiotrophoblast formation, are still unknown. By devising a sensitive method that combines a cell-cell fusion assay with the screening of a mouse cDNA library, we succeeded in identifying the glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)-anchored membrane protein lymphocyte antigen 6E (Ly6e) as a candidate receptor for SynA. Transfection of cells with the cloned receptor led to their fusion to cells expressing SynA, with no cross-reactive fusion activity with SynB. Knocking down Ly6e greatly reduced SynA-induced cell fusion, thus suggesting that Ly6e is the sole receptor for SynA in vivo Interaction of SynA with Ly6e was further demonstrated by a competition assay using the soluble ectodomain of Ly6e. Finally, reverse transcription-quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR) analysis of Ly6e expression on a representative panel of mouse tissues shows that it is significantly expressed in the mouse placenta together with SynA.IMPORTANCE Syncytin genes are envelope genes of endogenous retroviruses, co-opted for a physiological function in placentation. Syncytins are fusogenic proteins that mediate cell-cell fusion by interacting with receptors present on the partner cells. Here, by devising a sensitive in vitro fusion assay that enables the high-throughput screening of normalized cDNA libraries, we identified the long-sought receptor for syncytin-A (SynA), a mouse syncytin responsible for syncytiotrophoblast formation at the maternofetal interface of the mouse placenta. This protein, Ly6e (lymphocyte antigen 6E), is a GPI-anchored membrane protein, and small interfering RNA (siRNA) experiments targeting its deletion as well as a decoy assay using a recombinant soluble receptor show that Ly6e is the necessary and sufficient partner of SynA. Its profile of expression is consistent with a role in both ancestral endogenization of a SynA founder retrovirus and present-day placenta formation. This study provides a powerful general method to identify genes involved in cell-cell fusion processes.
Project description:In most mammalian species, a key process of placenta development is the fusion of trophoblast cells into a highly specialized, multinucleated syncytiotrophoblast layer, through which most of the maternofetal exchanges take place. Little is known about this process, despite the recent identification of 2 pairs of envelope genes of retroviral origin, independently acquired by the human (syncytin-1 and syncytin-2) and mouse (syncytin-A and syncytin-B) genomes, specifically expressed in the placenta, and with in vitro cell-cell fusion activity. By generating knockout mice, we show here that homozygous syncytin-A null mouse embryos die in utero between 11.5 and 13.5 days of gestation. Refined cellular and subcellular analyses of the syncytin-A-deficient placentae disclose specific disruption of the architecture of the syncytiotrophoblast-containing labyrinth, with the trophoblast cells failing to fuse into an interhemal syncytial layer. Lack of syncytin-A-mediated trophoblast cell fusion is associated with cell overexpansion at the expense of fetal blood vessel spaces and with apoptosis, adding to the observed maternofetal interface structural defects to provoke decreased vascularization, inhibition of placental transport, and fetal growth retardation, ultimately resulting in death of the embryo. These results demonstrate that syncytin-A is essential for trophoblast cell differentiation and syncytiotrophoblast morphogenesis during placenta development, and they provide evidence that genes captured from ancestral retroviruses have been pivotal in the acquisition of new, important functions in mammalian evolution.
Project description:Endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) are proviral phases of exogenous retroviruses that have co-evolved with vertebrate genomes for millions of years. Previous studies have identified the envelope (env) protein genes of retroviral origin preferentially expressed in the placenta which suggests a role in placentation based on their membrane fusogenic capacity and therefore they have been named syncytins. Until now, all the characterized syncytins have been associated with three invasive placentation types: the endotheliochorial (Carnivora), the synepitheliochorial (Ruminantia), and the hemochorial placentation (human, mouse) where they play a role in the syncytiotrophoblast formation. The purpose of the present study was to evaluate whether EqERV env RNA is expressed in horse tissues as well and investigate if the horse, possessing an epitheliochorial placenta, has "captured" a common retroviral env gene with syncytin-like properties in placental tissues. Interestingly, although in the equine placenta there is no syncytiotrophoblast layer at the maternal-fetal interface, our results showed that EqERV env RNA is highly expressed at that level, as expected for a candidate syncytin-like gene but with reduced abundance in the other somatic tissues (nearly 30-fold lower) thus suggesting a possible role in the placental tissue. Although the horse is one of the few domestic animals with a sequenced genome, few studies have been conducted about the EqERV and their expression in placental tissue has never been investigated.
Project description:Syncytin genes are fusogenic envelope protein (env) genes of retroviral origin that have been captured for a function in placentation. Within rodents, two such genes have previously been identified in the mouse-related clade, allowing a demonstration of their essential role via knockout mice. Here, we searched for similar genes in a second major clade of the Rodentia order, the squirrel-related clade, taking advantage of the complete sequencing of the ground squirrel Ictidomys tridecemlineatus genome. In silico search for env genes with full coding capacity identified several candidate genes with one displaying placenta-specific expression, as revealed by quantitative reverse transcription-PCR analysis of a large panel of tissues. This gene belongs to a degenerate endogenous retroviral element, with recognizable hallmarks of an integrated provirus. Cloning of the gene in an expression vector for ex vivo cell-cell fusion and pseudotype assays demonstrated fusogenicity on a large panel of mammalian cells. In situ hybridization on placenta sections showed specific expression in domains where trophoblast cells fuse into a syncytiotrophoblast at the fetomaternal interface, consistent with a role in syncytium formation. Finally, we show that the gene is conserved among the tribe Marmotini, thus dating its capture back to about at least 25 million years ago, with evidence for purifying selection and conservation of fusogenic activity. This gene that we named syncytin-Mar1 is distinct from all seven Syncytin genes identified to date in eutherian mammals and is likely to be a major effector of placentation in its related clade. Importance: Syncytin genes are fusogenic envelope genes of retroviral origin, ancestrally captured for a function in placentation. Within rodents, two such genes had been previously identified in the mouse-related clade. Here, in the squirrel-related rodent clade, we identified the envelope gene of an endogenous retrovirus with all the features of a Syncytin: it is specifically expressed in the placenta of the woodchuck Marmota monax, at the level of cells fusing into a syncytium; it can trigger cell-cell and virus-cell fusion ex vivo; and it has been conserved for >25 million years of evolution, suggesting an essential role in its host physiology. Remarkably, syncytin-Mar1 is unrelated to all other Syncytin genes identified thus far in mammals (primates, muroids, carnivores, and ruminants). These results extend the range of retroviral envelope gene "domestication" in mammals and show that these events occurred independently, on multiple occasions during evolution to improve placental development in a process of convergent evolution.
Project description:BACKGROUND: Syncytins are envelope genes of retroviral origin that have been co-opted by the host to mediate a specialized function in placentation. Two of these genes have already been identified in primates, as well as two distinct, non orthologous genes in rodents. RESULTS: Here we identified within the rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus-which belongs to the lagomorpha order- an envelope (env) gene of retroviral origin with the characteristic features of a bona fide syncytin, that we named syncytin-Ory1. An in silico search for full-length env genes with an uninterrupted open reading frame within the rabbit genome first identified two candidate genes that were tested for their specific expression in the placenta by quantitative RT-PCR of RNA isolated from a large set of tissues. This resulted in the identification of an env gene with placenta-specific expression and belonging to a family of endogenous retroelements present at a limited copy number in the rabbit genome. Functional characterization of the identified placenta-expressed env gene after cloning in a CMV-driven expression vector and transient transfection experiments, demonstrated both fusogenic activity in an ex vivo cell-cell fusion assay and infectivity of pseudotypes. The receptor for the rabbit syncytin-Ory1 was found to be the same as that for human syncytin-1, i.e. the previously identified ASCT2 transporter. This was demonstrated by a co-culture fusion assay between hamster A23 cells transduced with an expression vector for ASCT2 and A23 cells transduced with syncytin-Ory1. Finally, in situ hybridization of rabbit placenta sections with a syncytin-Ory1 probe revealed specific expression at the level of the junctional zone between the placental lobe and the maternal decidua, where the invading syncytial fetal tissue contacts the maternal decidua to form the labyrinth, consistent with a role in the formation of the syncytiotrophoblast. The syncytin-Ory1 gene is found in Leporidae but not in Ochotonidae, and should therefore have entered the lagomorpha order 12-30 million years ago. CONCLUSION: The identification of a novel syncytin gene within a third order of mammals displaying syncytiotrophoblast formation during placentation strongly supports the notion that on several occasions retroviral infections have resulted in the independent capture of genes that have been positively selected for a convergent physiological role.
Project description:Recently, we and others have identified two human endogenous retroviruses that entered the primate lineage 25-40 million years ago and that encode highly fusogenic retroviral envelope proteins (syncytin-1 and -2), possibly involved in the formation of the placenta syncytiotrophoblast layer generated by trophoblast cell fusion at the materno-fetal interface. A systematic in silico search throughout mouse genome databases presently identifies two fully coding envelope genes, present as unique copies and unrelated to any known murine endogenous retrovirus, that we named syncytin-A and -B. Quantitative RT-PCR demonstrates placenta-specific expression for both genes, with increasing transcript levels in this organ from 9.5 to 14.5 days postcoitum. In situ hybridization of placenta cryosections further localizes these transcripts in the syncytiotrophoblast-containing labyrinthine zona. Consistently, we show that both genes can trigger cell-cell fusion in ex vivo transfection assays, with distinct cell type specificities suggesting different receptor usage. Genes orthologous to syncytin-A and -B and disclosing a striking conservation of their coding status are found in all Muridae tested (mouse, rat, gerbil, vole, and hamster), dating their entry into the rodent lineage approximately 20 million years ago. Together, these data strongly argue for a critical role of syncytin-A and -B in murine syncytiotrophoblast formation, thus unraveling a rather unique situation where two pairs of endogenous retroviruses, independently acquired by the primate and rodent lineages, would have been positively selected for a convergent physiological role.
Project description:Syncytins are envelope genes of retroviral origin that have been co-opted for a role in placentation. They promote cell-cell fusion and are involved in the formation of a syncytium layer--the syncytiotrophoblast--at the materno-fetal interface. They were captured independently in eutherian mammals, and knockout mice demonstrated that they are absolutely required for placenta formation and embryo survival. Here we provide evidence that these "necessary" genes acquired "by chance" have a definite lifetime with diverse fates depending on the animal lineage, being both gained and lost in the course of evolution. Analysis of a retroviral envelope gene, the envV gene, present in primate genomes and belonging to the endogenous retrovirus type V (ERV-V) provirus, shows that this captured gene, which entered the primate lineage >45 million years ago, behaves as a syncytin in Old World monkeys, but lost its canonical fusogenic activity in other primate lineages, including humans. In the Old World monkeys, we show--by in situ analyses and ex vivo assays--that envV is both specifically expressed at the level of the placental syncytiotrophoblast and fusogenic, and that it further displays signs of purifying selection based on analysis of non-synonymous to synonymous substitution rates. We further show that purifying selection still operates in the primate lineages where the gene is no longer fusogenic, indicating that degeneracy of this ancestral syncytin is a slow, lineage-dependent, and multi-step process, in which the fusogenic activity would be the first canonical property of this retroviral envelope gene to be lost.
Project description:Syncytin is a captive retroviral envelope protein, possibly involved in the formation of the placental syncytiotrophoblast layer generated by trophoblast cell fusion at the maternal-fetal interface. We found that syncytin and type I viral envelope proteins shared similar structural profiling, especially in the regions of N- and C-terminal heptad repeats (NHR and CHR). We expressed the predicted regions of NHR (41aa) and CHR (34aa) in syncytin as a native single chain (named 2-helix protein) to characterize it. 2-Helix protein exists as a trimer and is highly alpha-helix, thermo-stable, and denatured by low pH. NHR and CHR could form a protease-resistant complex. The complex structure built by the molecular docking demonstrated that NHR and CHR associated in an antiparallel manner. Overall, the 2-helix protein could form a thermo-stable coiled coil trimer. The fusion core structure of syncytin was first demonstrated in endogenous retrovirus. These results support the explanation how syncytin mediates cytotrophoblast cell fusion involved in placental morphogenesis.
Project description:Fetal growth and survival is dependent on the elaboration and propinquity of the fetal and maternal circulations within the placenta. Central to this is the formation of the interhaemal membrane, a multi-cellular lamina facilitating exchange of oxygen, nutrients and metabolic waste products between the mother and fetus. In rodents, this cellular barrier contains two transporting layers of syncytiotrophoblast, which are multinucleated cells that form by cell-cell fusion. Previously, we reported the expression of the GPI-linked cell surface protein LY6E by the syncytial layer closest to the maternal sinusoids of the mouse placenta (syncytiotrophoblast layer I). LY6E has since been shown to be a putative receptor for the fusogenic protein responsible for fusion of syncytiotrophoblast layer I, Syncytin A. In this report, we demonstrate that LY6E is essential for the normal fusion of syncytiotrophoblast layer I, and for the proper morphogenesis of both fetal and maternal vasculatures within the placenta. Furthermore, specific inactivation of Ly6e in the epiblast, but not in placenta, is compatible with embryonic development, indicating the embryonic lethality reported for Ly6e-/- embryos is most likely placental in origin.