Syncytins are fusogenic envelope (env) genes of retroviral origin that have been captured for a function in placentation. Syncytins have been identified in Euarchontoglires (primates, rodents, Leporidae) and Laurasiatheria (Carnivora, ruminants) placental mammals. Here, we searched for similar genes in species that retained characteristic features of primitive mammals, namely the Malagasy and mainland African Tenrecidae. They belong to the superorder Afrotheria, an early lineage that diverged from Euarchotonglires and Laurasiatheria 100 Mya, during the Cretaceous terrestrial revolution. An in silico search for env genes with full coding capacity within a Tenrecidae genome identified several candidates, with one displaying placenta-specific expression as revealed by RT-PCR analysis of a large panel of Setifer setosus tissues. Cloning of this endogenous retroviral env gene demonstrated fusogenicity in an ex vivo cell-cell fusion assay on a panel of mammalian cells. Refined analysis of placental architecture and ultrastructure combined with in situ hybridization demonstrated specific expression of the gene in multinucleate cellular masses and layers at the materno-fetal interface, consistent with a role in syncytium formation. This gene, which we named "syncytin-Ten1," is conserved among Tenrecidae, with evidence of purifying selection and conservation of fusogenic activity. To our knowledge, it is the first syncytin identified to date within the ancestrally diverged Afrotheria superorder.
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