A number of observations have led researchers to postulate that, despite being replication-defective, human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) may have retained the potential to cause or contribute to disease. However, mechanisms of HERV pathogenicity might differ substantially from those of modern infectious retroviruses or of the infectious precursors of HERVs. Therefore, novel pathways of HERV involvement in disease pathogenesis should be investigated. Recent technological advances in sequencing and bioinformatics are making this task increasingly feasible. The accumulating knowledge of HERV biology may also facilitate the definition and general acceptance of criteria that establish HERV pathogenicity. Here, we explore possible mechanisms whereby HERVs may cause disease and examine the evidence that either has been or should be obtained in order to decisively address the pathogenic potential of HERVs.
The human genome contains numerous and repetitive human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs), relics of ancestral infection. Their mere presence in the genome, as well as distinct nucleic acid intermediates of retroviral replication and proteins produced by intact open reading frames may cause or contribute to pathology through the mechanism depicted.