Expression and function of endogenous retroviruses in the placenta

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Abstract

Although the expression of endogenous retroviruses in the placenta of numerous species was observed a long time ago, their physiological function during gestation was demonstrated only very recently. Expression of retroviral envelope proteins, also called syncytins, in the placenta allows generation of the multinuclear syncytiotrophoblast as an outer cellular layer of the placenta by fusion of the trophoblast cells. This fusion process is crucial for the development of the placenta and for successful pregnancy. It is still unclear whether the immunosuppressive properties of the transmembrane envelope protein of the endogenous retroviruses expressed in the placenta contribute to immunosuppression to prevent the rejection of the semiallotransplant embryo. The presence of placenta cells expressing retroviral envelope proteins surrounded by immune cells deep in the maternal tissue supports an immunosuppressive function. It is important to emphasize that during evolution different species utilized (‘enslaved’) different endogenous retroviruses and that two or more endogenous retroviruses are involved in placentogenesis in each species.

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