by Edward B. Chuong
The co-option of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) is increasingly recognized as a recurrent theme in placental biology, which has far-reaching implications for our understanding of mammalian evolution and reproductive health. Most research in this area has focused on ERV-derived proteins, which have been repeatedly co-opted to promote cell–cell fusion and immune modulation in the placenta. ERVs also harbor regulatory sequences that can potentially control placental gene expression, but there has been limited evidence to support this role. In a recent study, Dunn-Fletcher and colleagues discover a striking example of an ERV-derived enhancer element that has been co-opted to regulate a gene important for human pregnancy. Using genomic and experimental approaches, they firmly establish that a primate-specific ERV functions as a placenta-specific enhancer for corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), a hormone linked to the control of birth timing in humans. Their findings implicate an extensive yet understudied role for retroviruses in shaping the evolution of placental gene regulatory networks.