Transcription of human endogenous retroviruses in human brain by RNA-seq analysis

Fang Li, Sarven Sabunciyan, Robert H. Yolken, Doheon Lee, Sanghyeon Kim, Håkan Karlsson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background Human endogenous retroviruses (HERV) comprise 8% of the human genome and can be classified into at least 31 families. Increased levels of transcripts from the W and H families of HERV have been observed in association with human diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia. Although HERV transcripts have been detected in many tissues and cell-types based on microarray and PCR studies, the extent of HERV expression in different cell-types and diseases state has been less comprehensively studied. Results We examined overall transcription of HERV, and particularly of HERV-W and HERV-H elements in human postmortem brain samples obtained from individuals with psychiatric diagnoses (n = 111) and healthy controls (n = 51) by analyzing publicly available RNA sequencing datasets. Sequence reads were aligned to prototypical sequences representing HERV, downloaded from Repbase. We reported a consistent expression (0.1~0.2% of mappable reads) of different HERV families across three regions of human brains. Spearman correlations revealed highly correlated expression levels between three brain regionsacross 475 consensus sequences. By mapping sequences that aligned to the consensus sequences of HERV-W and HERV-H families to individual loci on chromosome 7, more than 60 loci from each family were identified, part of which are being transcribed. The ERVWE1, locus located at chr7q21.2, exhibited high levels of transcription across the three datasets. Notably, we demonstrated a trend of increased expression of overall HERV, as well as HERV-W family in samples from both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder patients. Conclusions The current analyses indicate that RNA sequencing is a useful approach for investigating global expression of repetitive elements, such as HERV, in the human genome. HERV-W/H with the tendency of transcription up-regulation in patients suggests potential implication of HERV-W/H in psychiatric diseases.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0207353
JournalPloS one
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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