The majority of human endogenous retroviral HERV-H elements in the human genome have large deletions in pol and lack most of env, 5-10% are more or less complete with a potentially immunosuppressive transmembrane protein-encoding env region. Spliced HERV-H env transcripts were detected in T-cell leukaemia cell lines and lymphocytes from healthy blood donors by using RT-PCR. The transcripts all contained a splice donor in the leader region downstream from the primer-binding site and a previously unreported splice acceptor in the integrase-encoding region of pol, absent in the HERV-H deletion elements. In singly spliced transcripts the leader and integrase regions were joined directly whereas in multiply spliced transcripts they were joined with an alternative exon from the protease-encoding region located between the two regions. env transcripts from three different HERV-H elements were identified: one element similar to a HERV-H consensus sequence was primarily amplified from the T-cell leukaemia cell lines and two other more defective elements were amplified from normal lymphocytes. One of these elements was shown to be a reintegrated spliced transcript where the protease and integrase regions were joined, removing most of pol but leaving gag intact. Other spliced transcripts, joining the protease region and the 3'-LTR, were also amplified. The fact that HERV-H elements with an intact env splice acceptor also use the splice sites in the protease-encoding region suggests that this unusual multiple splice pattern could have a biological function in the intact HERV-H.


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