Studies of recombinants between murine leukemia viruses (MuLVs) that cause thymic or erythroid leukemias have shown that enhancer sequences in the long-terminal repeats (LTRs) can determine the target tissues for pathogenesis. It has been inferred that the enhancers may specifically target viral expression into the cells that then become neoplastic. However, the neoplasms in those studies formed after latencies and contained ultimate viruses (called MCFs) that differed from the injected viruses in their enhancer sequences and envelope (env) genes. Transcriptional activities of LTRs from these proximal and ultimate viruses have not been thoroughly analyzed in different hematopoietic lineages. We present evidence that the enhancer of Friend spleen focus-forming virus (SFFV), an ultimate erythroleukemogenic retrovirus, contains an unstable 42-nucleotide direct repeat. Other ultimate erythroleukemogenic MuLVs (Friend MCFs) contain an enhancer nearly identical to that of SFFV both in its sequence and in its specific instability. The instability occurs in sequences that contain inverted repeats and we propose that it occurs by a simple reverse transcriptase hop mechanism. We constructed plasmids that contain the two forms of the SFFV LTR linked to the bacterial chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (CAT) gene, and we compared these in transient transfection assays with LTR-CAT plasmids constructed from Friend and Moloney MuLVs. The assays employed erythroleukemia cells, thymic lymphoma cells, and fibroblasts. The tropisms of expression correlated only weakly with tissue specificities of pathogenesis and each LTR was active in all cells. The SFFV 42-nucleotide duplication reduced expression in erythroid cells and increased expression in fibroblasts. We conclude that retroviral enhancers do not stringently direct gene expression into specific cell lineages, but on the contrary they are leaky and contain replicative instabilities that also expression into specific cell lineages, but on the contrary they are leaky and contain replicative instabilities that also may facilitate viral entrenchment throughout the host. These results have important implications for understanding murine retroviral evolution and the multi-step process of leukemogenesis.
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