A human endogenous retrovirus encoded protease potentially cleaves numerous cellular proteins

Giuseppe Rigogliuso, Martin L. Biniossek, John L. Goodier, Bettina Mayer, Gavin C. Pereira, Oliver Schilling, Eckart Meese, Jens Mayer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: A considerable portion of the human genome derives from retroviruses inherited over millions of years. Human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) are usually severely mutated, yet some coding-competent HERVs exist. The HERV-K(HML-2) group includes evolutionarily young proviruses that encode typical retroviral proteins. HERV-K(HML-2) has been implicated in various human diseases because transcription is often upregulated and some of its encoded proteins are known to affect cell biology. HERV-K(HML-2) Protease (Pro) has received little attention so far, although it is expressed in some disease contexts and other retroviral proteases are known to process cellular proteins. Results: We set out to identify human cellular proteins that are substrates of HERV-K(HML-2) Pro employing a modified Terminal Amine Isotopic Labeling of Substrates (TAILS) procedure. Thousands of human proteins were identified by this assay as significantly processed by HERV-K(HML-2) Pro at both acidic and neutral pH. We confirmed cleavage of a majority of selected human proteins in vitro and in co-expression experiments in vivo. Sizes of processing products observed for some of the tested proteins coincided with product sizes predicted by TAILS. Processed proteins locate to various cellular compartments and participate in diverse, often disease-relevant cellular processes. A limited number of HERV-K(HML-2) reference and non-reference loci appears capable of encoding active Pro. Conclusions: Our findings from an approach combining TAILS with experimental verification of candidate proteins in vitro and in cultured cells suggest that hundreds of cellular proteins are potential substrates of HERV-K(HML-2) Pro. It is therefore conceivable that even low-level expression of HERV-K(HML-2) Pro affects levels of a diverse array of proteins and thus has a functional impact on cell biology and possible relevance for human diseases. Further studies are indicated to elucidate effects of HERV-K(HML-2) Pro expression regarding human substrate proteins, cell biology, and disease. The latter also calls for studies on expression of specific HERV-K(HML-2) loci capable of encoding active Pro. Endogenous retrovirus-encoded Pro activity may also be relevant for disease development in species other than human.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number36
JournalMobile DNA
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 22 2019


  • Endogenous retrovirus
  • HERV-K
  • Pathogenesis
  • Proteolysis
  • Retrotransposon
  • Retroviral protease

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology


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