Molecular characterisation of endogenous loci related to jaagsiekte sheep retrovirus.
The study of retroviruses has been of pivotal significance to the field of biomedical science, where it has provided fundamental insights into the processes underlying both viral and non-viral carcinogenesis. Ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma (OP A), a contagious lung cancer of sheep and goats, has emerged over the past three decades as an invaluable model of human epithelial cancers. It is one of the very few animal models of retrovirus induced neoplasia of epithelial tissues, whereas most other such animal models of human cancers pertain to the haematopoietic system. OP A represents a unique, naturally occurring, inducible, outbred animal model of peripheral lung carcinomas, and is caused by a betaretrovirus - jaagsiekte sheep retrovirus (JSRV) - that is receiving increasing attention in the fields of retrovirology and lung cancer research. JSRV exists in two highly homologous, yet molecularly distinct forms. The first is an exogenous form of the virus that is transmitted horizontally from one animal to another. This form is infectious and the direct cause of OP A. The other is an endogenous form, 15 to 20 proviral copies of which reside benignly in the genome of sheep and are transmitted vertically from one generation to the next. At the time this study commenced, no knowledge existed regarding the underlying pathogenic mechanism by which JSRV causes OPA. Even though the nucleotide sequence of exogenous JSRV had been elucidated seven years earlier, only limited sequence information was available on endogenous JSRVs. With a view towards identifying genetic regions or elements within exogenous JSRV that could potentially be implicated in its pathogenic function, this study began with the cloning of the first three full-length endogenous JSRV loci ever isolated from sheep. The DNA sequences of these full-length endogenous JSRV loci were determined and comprehensively analysed. Comparison with exogenous JSRV isolates revealed that the two forms of the virus are highly homologous, yet can be consistently distinguished in three short regions within the coding genes. Two of these reside in the gag gene, and one at the end of the env gene. These regions were named the variable regions (VRs) of sheep betaretroviruses. The JSRV VR3 in env was linked by our collaborators to the virus's ability to transform cells in tissue culture. The effects and biological significance of VRI and VR2 in gag are subtler and more difficult to determine. After identifying these regions, it became the objective of this study to develop relevant molecular tools that could be used to discern the significance of these variable regions in vivo, and to characterise these tools in vitro to assess their suitability for in vivo studies. The development of these tools entailed the design of a novel strategy that was implemented to precisely substitute the endogenous VRI and VR2 (individually and in combination) into an infectious molecular clone of exogenous JSRV. These chimeric constructs were shown to support retroviral particle release into the supernatant of transiently transfected cells in tissue culture. These particles were confirmed by independent experiments to have arisen specifically from transfection with the chimeric clones. Finally, the particles were shown to be capable of infecting cultured cells and of productively integrating their genomes into those of their host cells, rendering these particles fully competent retroviruses that can be used in the context of in vivo studies to determine the biological significance of VRI and VR2. This study has made a significant contribution to the further development of the OP A / JSRV model system of human epithelial lung cancers. It has also led to the design of a molecular substitution strategy that can be adapted to introduce any genetic region into a cloned DNA construct, regardless of the degree - or lack of interrelation - of the two DNA sequences, thereby creating a highly versatile molecular biological tool.