Research Article: Genomic Amplification of an Endogenous Retrovirus in Zebrafish T-Cell Malignancies

Date Published: June 13, 2012

Publisher: Hindawi Publishing Corporation

Author(s): J. Kimble Frazer, Lance A. Batchelor, Diana F. Bradley, Kim H. Brown, Kimberly P. Dobrinski, Charles Lee, Nikolaus S. Trede.


Genomic instability plays a crucial role in oncogenesis. Somatically acquired mutations can disable some genes and inappropriately activate others. In addition, chromosomal rearrangements can amplify, delete, or even fuse genes, altering their functions and contributing to malignant phenotypes. Using array comparative genomic hybridization (aCGH), a technique to detect numeric variations between different DNA samples, we examined genomes from zebrafish (Danio rerio) T-cell leukemias of three cancer-prone lines. In all malignancies tested, we identified recurring amplifications of a zebrafish endogenous retrovirus. This retrovirus, ZFERV, was first identified due to high expression of proviral transcripts in thymic tissue from larval and adult fish. We confirmed ZFERV amplifications by quantitative PCR analyses of DNA from wild-type fish tissue and normal and malignant D. rerio T cells. We also quantified ZFERV RNA expression and found that normal and neoplastic T cells both produce retrovirally encoded transcripts, but most cancers show dramatically increased transcription. In aggregate, these data imply that ZFERV amplification and transcription may be related to T-cell leukemogenesis. Based on these data and ZFERV’s phylogenetic relation to viruses of the murine-leukemia-related virus class of gammaretroviridae, we posit that ZFERV may be oncogenic via an insertional mutagenesis mechanism.

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Zebrafish are an emerging animal model for the study of lymphocytic cancers. A landmark 2003 study first described that transgenic murine Myc (mMyc) misexpression could induce D. rerio T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (T-ALL) [1]. Since that initial report, several other zebrafish ALL models have been described, utilizing transgenic mammalian TEL-AML1 (human), NOTCH1 (human), MYC (murine and human), and AKT2 (murine) in similar fashion [2–5]. In addition, we used a phenotypic mutagenesis screen to create three further zebrafish models with heritable T-ALL predisposition [6]. All but one of the eight lines cited above are prone to T-ALL, not B-cell-lineage cancers. Like human T-ALL, D. rerio T-ALL often arises in or spreads to the thymus and forms tumors. Hence, these seven zebrafish lines actually more accurately model two related lymphocyte malignancies, T-ALL and T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma (T-LBL). In fact, mMyc zebrafish have even been used to investigate the molecular changes that accompany the transition between T-LBL and T-ALL [7].

We previously performed an ENU-mutagenesis phenotypic screen designed to identify abnormal T-cell phenotypes. Our screen resulted in the discovery of three D. rerio lines (srk, hlk, otg) prone to T-cell malignancies, specifically T-ALL and T-LBL [6]. To investigate non-germline acquired genetic changes occurring in these cancers, we used aCGH to compare DNA of neoplastic and normal tissues from individual fish of each of these lines. These experiments revealed several homologous genes that are commonly amplified or deleted in both zebrafish and human T-ALL [8].

Nearly a decade ago, Shen and Steiner discovered a zebrafish endogenous retrovirus, ZFERV, based on its high transcriptional activity in larval and adult D. rerio thymocytes [11]. Their work suggested that multiple copies of ZFERV existed in the zebrafish genome, and since that time, the loci where ZFERV resides still have not been definitively assigned. These difficulties are probably attributable to the fact that this multicopy locus may vary in copy number and genomic positioning in different fish. Amidst this backdrop, we have found that ZFERV copy number is increased still further in every D. rerio T-cell malignancy we examined from 4 different genetic lines.




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