Human Endogenous Retroviruses; Evolutionary Dynamics, Chromosomal Location and Host Benefit


Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are remnants of past retroviral infection that have been integrated within the human genome. Our glimpse of these viruses perhaps highlights their evolutionary dynamics over time. Survival of both virus and host are paramount and it is plausible that some benefit has arisen whereby the human host has gained some selective advantage. In particular, some retroviral elements may have regulatory or biological functions. Of course harbouring viruses could also lead to harm if activated by environmental agents.

Keywords: endogenous retrovirus; genome; evolutionary dynamics; chromosomes; host benefit

Figure 1.

Division of human DNA. Approximate percentage breakdown of DNA. Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) constitute part of the DNA ascribed to transposable elements.

Figure 2.

Time‐line of HERV integration within primate evolution. Modified with regard to Steinhuber et al..



Belshaw R, Pereira V, Katzourakis A et al. (2004) Long‐term reinfection of the human genome by endogeous retroviruses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 101: 4894–4899.

Ejtehadi HD, Freimanis GL, Ali HA et al. (2006) The potential role of human endogenous retrovirus K10 in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis: a preliminary study. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases 65: 612–616.

ENCODE (2007) Identification and analysis of functional elements in 1% of the human genome by the ENCODE pilot project. Nature 14(447): 799–816.

Katzourakis A, Rambaut A and Pybus OG (2005) The evolutionary dynamics of endogenous retroviruses. Trends in Microbiology 13: 463–468.

Mare L and Trinchera M (2007) Comparative analysis of retroviral and native promoters driving expression of beta1,3‐galactosyltransferase beta3Gal‐T5 in human and mouse tissues. Journal of Biological Chemistry 282: 49–57.

Moyes D, Griffiths DJ and Venables PJ (2007) Insertional polymorphisms: a new lease of life for endogenous retroviruses in human disease. Trends in Genetics 23: 326–333.

Pearson A (2007) Junking the genome. New Scientist 195: 42–45.

Seifarth W, Frank O, Zeilfelder U et al. (2005) Comprehensive analysis of human endogenous retrovirus transcriptional activity in human tissues with a retrovirus‐specific microarray. Journal of Virology 79: 341–352.

Spencer TE, Johnson GA, Bazer FW, Burghardt RC and Palmarini M (2007) Pregnancy recognition and conceptus implantation in domestic ruminants: roles of progesterone, interferons and endogenous retroviruses. Reproduction, Fertility, and Development 19: 65–78.

Steinhuber S, Brack M, Hunsmann G et al. (1995) Distribution of human endogenous retrovirus HERV‐K genomes in humans and different primates. Human Genetics 96: 188–192.

Wang‐Johanning F, Liu J, Rycaj K et al. (2007) Expression of multiple human endogenous retrovirus surface envelope proteins in ovarian cancer. International Journal of Cancer 120: 81–90.

Further Reading

Blomberg J and Ushameckis JP (2005) Evolutionary aspects of human endogenous retroviral sequences (HERVs) and disease. In: Sverdlov ED (ed.) Retroviruses and Primate Genome Evolution, chap. 11, pp. 204–242.

Boeke JD and Stoye JP (1997) Retrotransposons, endogenous retroviruses, and the evolution of retroelents. In: Coffin JM, Hugbes SH and Varmus HE (eds) Retroviruses, pp. 343–435, chap. 8. New York: Cold spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

Chen DT and Johanning GL (2007) Expression of multiple human endogenous retrovirus surface envelope proteins in ovarian cancer. International Journal of Cancer 120: 81–90.

Galbraith DN, Kelly HT, Dyke A et al. (2000) Design and validation of immunological tests for the detection of porcine endogenous retrovirus in biological materials. Journal of Virological Methods 90: 115–124.

Hughes JF and Coffin JM (2005) Human endogenous retroviral elements as indicators of ectopic recombination events in the primate genome. Genetics 171: 1183–1194.

Kjellman C, Sjogren H‐O and Widegren B (1995) The Y chromosome: a graveyard for endogenous retroviruses. Gene 161: 163–170.

Nelson PN, Hooley P, Roden D et al. (2004) Human endogenous retroviruses: transposable elements with potential? Clinical and Experimental Immunology 138: 1–9.

Tristem M (2000) Identification and characterization of novel human endogenous retrovirus families by phylogenetic screening of the human genome mapping project database. Journal of Virology 74: 3715–3730.

Weiss RA (2006) The discovery of endogenous retroviruses. Retrovirology 3(67): 1–11.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Nelson, Paul, Freimanis, Graham, and Roden, Denise(Jul 2008) Human Endogenous Retroviruses; Evolutionary Dynamics, Chromosomal Location and Host Benefit. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020831]