Overexpression and long terminal repeat (LTR) polymorphism of the HRES-1/Rab4 human endogenous retrovirus locus have been associated with T cell activation and disease manifestations in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Although genomic DNA methylation is diminished overall in SLE, its role in HRES-1/Rab4 expression is unknown. Therefore, we determined how lupus-associated polymorphic rs451401 alleles of the LTR regulate transcription from the HRES-1/Rab4 promoter and thus affect T cell activation. The results showed that cytosine–119 is hypermethylated while cytosine–51 of the promoter and the LTR enhancer are hypomethylated in SLE. Pharmacologic or genetic inactivation of DNA methyltransferase 1 augmented the expression of HRES-1/Rab4. The minimal promoter was selectively recognized by metabolic stress sensor NRF1 when cytosine–119 but not cytosine–51 was methylated, and NRF1 stimulated HRES-1/Rab4 expression in human T cells. In turn, IRF2 and PSIP1 bound to the LTR enhancer and exerted control over HRES-1/Rab4 expression in rs451401 genotype– and methylation-dependent manners. The LTR enhancer conferred markedly greater expression of HRES-1/Rab4 in subjects with rs451401CC over rs451401GG alleles that in turn promoted mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) activation upon T cell receptor stimulation. HRES-1/Rab4 alone robustly activated mTOR in human T cells. These findings identify HRES-1/ Rab4 as a methylation- and rs451401 allele–dependent transducer of environmental stress and controller of T cell activation.
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